Tony Kulesza likens his daughter Mackenzie to "a light in the room," saying she lived to make people happy and offered a warm smile wherever she went.
“She was a goof-off like her father," Kulesza said. "She always tried to make you smile."
It was in the evening on Nov. 10 when Kulesza received a call he'll never forget. He learned by telephone that his beloved 11-year-old daughter had been in a terrible accident, one that left her battling for her life.
"My heart just sank," he said.
Mackenzie and a group of friends were walking along Rapids Road in the town of Lockport when she was struck by a passing automobile. She was transported to Oishei Children's Hospital in Buffalo, where she was listed in critical condition immediately after the accident.
This past Thursday, Kulesza and Mackenzie's mother, Jennifer Woods, made the difficult decision to take their daughter off life support.
During an interview with the Union-Sun & Journal this week, Kulesza talked about a string of memories made as he watched Mackenzie grow up. He said she was well known on the local speedway circuit, since he used to be a racer at Ransomville Speedway and other tracks where dad and daughter often visited for races and fun.
Kulesza remembers how, when he brought Mackenzie to the races, she often would fall asleep in a quickly improvised bed in the trunk of his parked car. He laughed as he remembered seeing her talk to a T-shirt vendor at one races, and ended up selling T-shirts with her – someone Mackenzie had just met. He said when she knew he was feeling a bit down, Mackenzie would play his favorite song, “Wagon Wheel,” on her phone for him. The song would follow her even in her passing; it was played during a candlelight vigil held in her honor last week.
“It wasn’t her favorite song, but she tried to like it because she knew I liked it,” he said.
Kulezsa said the racing community is close and he’s been getting calls from as far away as Michigan, from people who remember Mackenzie and want to show their support. Special memorial events are being planned at Ransomville Speedway, the Bradford Speedway (in Pennsylvania) and the Genesee Speedway in Batavia, which will host “Light Up the Night for Mackenzie,” on June 17, her birthday.
“She loved to bring glow sticks to the race track, so they’re going to do a light show," Kulezsa said.
In the days since the accident, residents across Niagara County and the region have been offering support to Mackenzie's family. A pair of GoFundMe pages have now raised more than $19,100 for the family.
Kulesza said he was particularly touched by the dozens of people who came to Oishei Children's Hospital after Mackenzie was admitted, and all of those who stayed nearby for hours because they were not allowed to physically enter the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“A lot of them spent the three days we were there in the parking ramp,” he said.
Kulesza said everyone who met Mackenzie was affected not only by her death, but every day that they had contact with her. He remembers that whenever she visited his home, she was apt to come with a small gift for one of his neighbors who she'd expect to see in the apartment house.
Mackenzie was a good person-reader, according to her dad, and she went out of her way to make people happy.
"She was special," he said.