WEST CHESTER, Ohio - Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips and Jackie Robinson's daughter, Sharon, were two of many people associated with Major League Baseball who recognized a local student on Thursday.
Meggie Zahneis, a freshman at Lakota West Freshman School, was named as the 2011 grand prize winner of the Breaking Barriers Program for ninth graders. During the assembly at her school, Zahneis was announced as the first-ever Breaking Barriers envoy and MLB.com youth reporter and will be covering the Reds and items of broader interest in the sport.
The program recognizes students for their efforts to overcome personal barriers using values exemplified by baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Students all across the country write essays explaining how they overcame obstacles and hurdles in their life.
Zahneis suffers from a rare disease called neuropathy, hereditary, sensory, Type II, also known as HSAN2. It is a rare genetic disorder that usually begins in childhood by affecting the nerves that serve the lower arms and hands and the lower legs and feet (the peripheral nerves).
Meggie actually met Robinson last year when she (Sharon) visited Lakota Ridge Dr. School to honor the then eighth-grade Zahneis and to share the historical story of her father breaking the color barrier in baseball. Before Robinson could share the history of her father, Zahneis was able to share her story to the entire student body.
"Only about 50 people in the world have it. No one has ever heard of it, so they maybe don't quite understand what it is about me that is a little different," Zahneis said. "That makes it harder for them to comprehend that. I would like to be as normal as possible and try to blend in."
HSANII has made it difficult for Zahneis to blend in. The disorder has left her with the inability to feel pain, temperature or touch the same way as everyone else. She also has had cochlear implants to her with her hearing and has had many orthopedic issues. Overall, she has had 14 surgeries in her life prior to this past spring.
In the classroom, Zahneis, who wants to be a writer, is already taking advanced writing classes.
"She is a very intelligent young lady, but people looking at her don't always get that opinion. I see it in teachers' faces. I see it in children's faces," said Peggy Redman, who taught Meggie as Lakota Ridge Jr. School. "It is just one of those things and she knows it. She has had to combat that and I think she said at one point, she thinks it is getting a little bit worse the older she gets."
During last year's assembly, Zahneis stood tall and read aloud her essay.
"I've had to endure one health issues after another and it certainly hasn't been easy. I'm often socially shunned, and as I grow older and prepare to enter high school, this issues has become more and more prevalent. 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 the baseball field, but I face many of the same social and emotional barriers that Jackie Robinson did... everyday, 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."
Zahneis' story was a standout and was picked out from more than 9, 700 essays across the country.
Robinson said afterwards, "her story was such an inspiration and something we (MLB) want to share with the country and other kids."
Phil Castellini, Chief Operating Officer of the Reds, Jacqueline Parkes, Chief Marketing Officer of Major League Baseball and Tom Brasuell, Vice President of Community Affairs for Major League Baseball were also on hand for Thursday's ceremony.