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11/29/11 2:00 PM EST

Passion and persistence: The winning essay

The following is the winning entry submitted by Meggie Zahneis in the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest:

I know what it's like to be different from everyone else around you, to overcome obstacles, to confront adversity. It may not be on a baseball field, but I face many of the same social and emotional barriers that Jackie Robinson did.

I have a rare disorder called HSAN II (Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathy, type 2). There are only about fifty known cases of HSAN II worldwide, each with varied symptoms. Since I can't feel pain, temperature, and touch to the same degree as everyone else, I've run up against quite a few obstacles through the years. More than anything, I've had to rely on persistence, determination, and commitment to get me through those obstacles.

Because of my disability, many kids I know have judged this book by its cover, without taking the time to look a little closer and see that I'm just like them inside. This is where I personally identify with Mr. Robinson, as he dealt with the same issue.

Medically, I am a recipe for disaster. I've had fourteen surgeries, including several on my eyes, ears, mouth, and hips. I've had to endure one health issue after another, and it certainly hasn't been easy. I'm also often socially shunned, and as I grow older and prepare to enter high school, this issue has become more and more prevalent. With all these things going on in my life, I've had to rely on a few things to keep me going.

You see, Mr. Robinson and I have something else in common besides overcoming adversity: a love of baseball. Although it's unusual for a fourteen-year-old girl, I've had a certain passion for the game from an early age. However, I'm not able to play like most kids, so I've had to channel my love of baseball a bit differently. Instead of giving up on it, I persisted and pursued my passion in a more unique way: the next best thing to playing -- being one of my Cincinnati Reds' most diehard fans, and becoming a walking baseball history encyclopedia and avid baseball memorabilia collector.

The other thing that fuels my fire is my love of writing. For years, I've been able to creatively express myself through poetry, narratives, and posts on my blog. As I entered junior high, I threw myself into founding and editing my school newspaper and being a member of a competitive writing team.

Every day, I try to make a conscious commitment to focus on the things I CAN do, and not the ones I can't. I like to think I have the determination to forge forward with my strengths and use them to the advantage of not only myself, but of other kids with special needs. It's my dream that someday, just like Mr. Robinson paved the way for African-Americans to play baseball, I can pave the way, through my writing, for other kids with special needs. Hopefully, I can help people understand us "non-typical" kids a little more, and inspire them to take a chance on befriending someone a little different from them. I really do believe taking that chance will pay off.

Of course, that's much easier said than done. It can be very hard for me to maintain my positivity on a day-to-day basis. A particularly rough time for me was one of my most recent surgeries, when I had a major procedure done on both hips. Not only was I in excruciating pain for days, but I was confined to a wheelchair for three months afterwards. To top it all off, the surgery took place a week before Christmas, which was also my thirteenth birthday. It was hard to go back to school and have everyone staring at me, sitting in a wheelchair with my legs sticking straight out! But I was determined not to let it get to me, and the only day of school I missed was the day of the surgery.

It's during days like those that I'm forced to really dig deep and make that daily commitment to be strong and to be positive. With an attitude like that, I truly believe I can make a difference in this world.

Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.