Magical thinking leads to good works

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Derek McKee has been busy recently.

He’s appeared on “The Late Late Show” with Craig Ferguson and “Extra” with Mario Lopez, performed in Malibu at a camp for homeless kids and wowed ’em in Las Vegas.

“And now I’m in a box,” he said March 29.

Quite literally. The Heritage High School senior was spending the week in a Plexiglas box on the 16th Street Mall to raise awareness about the plight of the up to 1,500 homeless youths who sleep on the streets of Denver every night without the luxury of walls and a roof.

“It’s like a sauna today,” he said, and he had the sweat to prove it. But when it’s cold outside, it’s really, really cold in the box, he says.

McKee is on the board of the Little Red Wagon Foundation, which works to provide homeless kids with basic necessities and some comfort items. It was founded in 2005 by Zach Bonner, who was serving time concurrently with McKee in his own box in Tampa, Fla.

“There’s been so much support from the community, and the homeless community has just been amazing,” he said. One memory he’ll take home is of a homeless couple who offered their last dollar and some canned food. The husband needed medicine, and Derek and his team made sure he got it.

His goal was to line the walls of the box with 3,000 cans of food he’ll donate to local food banks. By his third day, he’d already stacked up 700 or so.

Which at least gave him one wall of privacy — changing clothes is just one challenge he’s had to figure out.

“You can’t be bashful when you live in a box,” he said. He’s only stepped out to run into Denver Pavilions to find a restroom, and sleeping has been pretty much out of the question.

“The shuttles run until 10 at night, and then all the streetlights come on,” he said. His box locks and he has security, but he said he hadn’t had any trouble. Nobody has tagged his box or tried to tip it over, but he said things get pretty interesting after the bars close.

He’s mostly enjoyed the week, meeting people who bring donations or just stop by to say hello. He keeps himself and passers-by entertained by performing his signature card tricks.

At 11, McKee became the youngest person ever to compete at the World Magic Teen Competition in Las Vegas. Two years later, as he prepared to compete there for the third time, a production company decided to film a documentary based on it. “Make Believe” won in its category at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and McKee was on his way. Now he hangs out in Hollywood hobnobbing with his childhood idol, Lance Burton, and amazes audiences around the world.

All that and math class too.

His math teacher, Abbie Wade, spent some time with him on the mall. She thinks he’s giving a wonderful gift to those who need it.

“He’s beyond high school in maturity,” she said.

McKee says every kid has the potential to find creative ways to make a difference.

“It’s important for us to give back in a way that’s not just volunteering, which is great, but there’s still so much to be done,” he said.

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