Mechenbier honored for her nonprofit work

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Two adorable little girls, about 2 and 3 years old, run to a woman in blue jeans and amble up onto her lap.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Kathy Mechenbier, co-founder of El Ranchito de los Niños, was honored for her outstanding nonprofit work and community service at the Albuquerque Business First’s ninth annual Women of Influence awards dinner.

They snuggle, and one dips her forehead into the matriarch’s chest. Norman Rockwell, the Saturday Evening Post illustrator, couldn’t have painted a cozier family picture, but this is not your usual domestic scene. This is an alternative home, El Ranchito de los Niños, and the woman is Kathy Mechenbier, the co-founder of the home in rural Los Lunas.

The girls have come in from getting their hair cut, and clearly enjoy basking in the praise Mechenbier and her staff are showering on them.

El Ranchito de los Niños is a place of safety and comfort for children who have come from tumultuous and often neglectful circumstances. Many of the children come to the ranch having never known the satisfaction of regular meals.

Mechenbier, who co-founded El Ranchito de los Niños with her husband, Mike, was honored at the Albuquerque Business First’s ninth annual Women of Influence awards dinner for her outstanding nonprofit work and community service.

“She is well deserving of the award,” said Mary Spring, El Ranchito de los Niños development manager. “She and Mike give their whole life to the children’s home. Really, at a time when Kathy could easily retire … and she really looks at these children as her own children. It shows in every way.”

Mechenbier was nominated as one of 400 women who have made a positive impact on their communities.

The nominees were asked to fill out an application and submit a letter of reference for the judging process that would choose only 32 women.

A panel of leaders in business and the community evaluated the applicants on professional achievement, leadership and community involvement.

Mechenbier and the 31 other honorees were selected in eight categories, including business services, education, entrepreneur, financial services, government, health and fitness, nonprofit and technology.

“My development person (Mary Spring) wrote a really good letter,” Mechenbier demurely laughs.

Mechenbier is modest, and not one for the limelight, but she is a tireless advocate for New Mexico’s children caught in the middle of family troubles.

All of the honorees were videotaped for the award ceremony, and Mechenbier, no ham for the screen, had just received some bad news. Two of the children had severe dental issues that would require drastic measures, and she was feeling emotional, she said.

During the video interview about El Ranchito de los Niños, she couldn’t hold back her tears.

“I didn’t know that I’d be able to love somebody else’s child like I love my own,” Mechenbier said.

“She’s very involved with all their lives,” Spring said. “She knows their grades, what’s going on. She’s just very involved with these kids. They matter to her, and when they interviewed her, you could tell. It was very heart-felt — you got a lump in your throat.”

Mechenbier spends a lot of time at the ranch helping the children with homework and being available for their emotional needs. The whole family is involved and invested in the home, Spring said.

“I think what made it so special to me is five of those judges who had seen the film came up to me and said, ‘We could tell that your heart is in this 100 percent,’ Mechenbier said. “When they told me that, I really felt that it meant something. I want everybody to know about us, to know that kids have a hard time in this world, you know?”

El Ranchito de los Niños is an alternative to foster care founded in 2000, and provides a supportive, family farm setting.

“It was mostly my husband’s idea,” she said.

The couple own Sundance Mechanical Utility in Albuquerque and started their first nonprofit organization called Los Niños, to work with other agencies to provide assistance to families in need with young children. But they really wanted to do something they could be certain directly benefitted children.

“We wondered what happened to all the orphanages,” Mechenbier said. “When my husband and I were younger, we remember visiting a boys orphanage in Albuquerque. It shut down in 1964.”

She decided to travel around New Mexico and other states to visit orphanages and find out what was available for children and what was needed. She and her close friend and fellow child advocate, the late Laura Farris, took the research road trip together.

“Then we brought a board together,” Mechenbier said. “We had a gamut of people. We had people who did finances, we had people that were in child care, we had people that were attorneys and judges — just to get everybody’s ideas. So, we pulled from all of that and built the home.”

The 7,000-square-foot ranch house sits on 23 acres in a quiet, rural setting, and is also home to farm animals.

“And they thrive, they really thrive,” Mechenbier said of the children. “We get them involved in 4-H, academically we put them in the best schools we possibly can find for them. The horses, the animals — I raised my kids with them, and it’s proven that animals really add so much to children’s lives. It teaches them that they have to take care of something and that something needs them.”

The children are not under court order to stay at El Ranchito, most are privately placed. Their families can visit them anytime, unless parents decide otherwise.

The hope is always that the families will heal and be able to bring their children home, Mechenbier said.

“These children are kids whose parents can’t take care of them, and our mission is to keep the siblings together,” she said. “Because what we have found out is, it’s hard to be separated from parents, but they’re finding out, it’s even harder to be separated from your siblings.”

More than 500 people attended the sold-out Albuquerque Business First’s ninth annual Women of Influence awards dinner at Sandia Casino.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.