Every girl dreams of her father-daughter dance as a rite of passage. But for this daddy-daughter duo, the tradition has taken on a broad new significance.
Mike Carey, a truck driver from Dallas, Georgia, acts as the arms and legs of his 12-year-old daughter, McKenzie, a beauty-pageant queen in a wheelchair who lives with a rare disorder and, like any preteen girl, has a love of dancing.
Their first YouTube video, posted on June 17, showed Carey waltzing with and dipping his beaming daughter across a stage to Miley Cyrus‘s aptly themed “The Climb.” It is approaching nearly 5 million views.
McKenzie suffers from mitochondrial disease, which has dramatically impaired her speech and movement.
“The way I look at it, my daughter is 12 years old – most of these kids don’t even make it to their 13th birthday,” Carey tells PEOPLE. “I’m not going to waste a single day being negative when I don’t know how long she has to live. Why turn your life into a negative mess when you could be positive and make a difference?
“You ought to see her,” he says, with a laugh. “She might not be doing everything a normal child is doing, but she’s so happy.”
Mike and his wife, Tammy, began helping McKenzie enter non-special-needs beauty pageants when she was 5 years old to make her life feel as normal as possible.
Dad Came Up with a Solution
However, the disease, which affects McKenzie’s speech and mobility, made it nearly impossible for her to compete onstage with the other contestants – until her dad waltzed in with his own solution.
“Okay, I understand how stressed and nervous you are,” Carey recalls saying to his concerned wife. “[I said], ‘Leave it to me. I’m going to give McKenzie the best chance to win this pageant. I’m going to give her the best chance.’ ”
Armed with nothing more than a baseball cap and as much lightness of foot as any dad can muster, Carey lifted McKenzie out of her chair and began free-styling a routine, winning a standing ovation and starting their amazing journey together.
That pageant would become the first of 20 wins for McKenzie. “I just do what I do, and perform with her and get a smile out of her,” Carey tells PEOPLE. “She loves to dance with her daddy.”
Mike and his wife have choreographed seven dances for McKenzie, ranging from two-step and hip-hop to the classical waltz, with several holiday numbers. The crowd favorite is Steven Curtis Chapman’s father-daughter ballad “Cinderella.”
“It gives me goose bumps,” Carey says of the inspired reaction they’ve received. He’s even gotten emails from people claiming the video saved them from despair.
“That’s what it’s all about. I couldn’t care less about the wins, I couldn’t care less about the losses,” he says. “If I can make a difference in this world through these videos, hey, I’ll do them forever.”
‘It’s Like She Draws People Toward Her’
McKenzie’s GoFundMe page, which has now raised more than $100,000 from supporters across the globe, is helping to alleviate the financial burden of $10,000 in yearly medical treatments and other expenses, like a handicap-accessible van. Carey hopes he will eventually be able to move his family to Melbourne, Florida, to be closer to McKenzie’s treatment center.
He also hopes to start a charity for kids with life-threatening illnesses like his daughter’s.
But for now, the family is treasuring the here and now and celebrating McKenzie’s unbreakable spirit.
“She has such an aura about her,” Carey says. “It’s like a magnet. It’s like she draws people toward her. You could have a heart of stone and she’d turn it into gold. You cannot be upset when you’re around her. When you’re in the presence of McKenzie, there’s no way. She just makes you feel so warm inside. Words can’t even express that.”