Breaking Barriers contest winner wows judges

Venable, only 9, impresses judges with essay about his life

Breaking Barriers contest winner wows judges

CINCINNATI -- "Did I win the whole thing?"

That was rising fifth-grader Malcolm Venable's first question to his mom after getting word that he'd won the Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life essay contest.

The annual contest invites students in grades four through nine to submit an essay describing their experiences in overcoming barriers or obstacles they have faced, or are still facing, in their lives by using the values demonstrated by Jackie Robinson as he broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. These values are citizenship, commitment, courage, determination, excellence, integrity, justice, persistence and teamwork.

Malcolm, a member of the New Orleans Urban Youth Academy, was no stranger to the Breaking Barriers theme.

The 9-year-old has faced bullying at school due to his stutter, and he regularly attends speech therapy to combat the issue.

"When you have a stuttering problem, it's hard to make friends, because most of the time my classmates end up bullying me. So I wrote that essay, and I said bullies are people that torment and then harass you," Malcolm said.

Malcolm's mother, Cindy, recalls when she discovered that her son was being ostracized.

"Every time he went into therapy, [his therapist] would ask him about his day, and he would start talking about his day at school and how some of the kids [were] bullying him and calling him names," Cindy Venable said. "This went on for a while, so she contacted me saying she was concerned because every time she talked with him, he was talking about how these kids at school were bullying him.

"So she sent a letter asking them to address the situation: 'Every time we see him, he's talking about being bullied. And so then after that, they called me into a meeting … about the way he stutters and people teasing him and kicking sometimes, shoving -- "

"Smacking, punching, tripping," her son, sitting beside her, interjected.

Malcolm knew as soon as Cindy told him about the essay contest that he wanted to enter.

Why?

Simple answer, according to Malcolm: "To tell my story."

And tell his story Malcolm did. His essay wowed a panel of judges from MLB and contest partner Scholastic, all of whom agreed that Malcolm deserved to win.

Malcolm and his mom say they have watched the Jackie Robinson biopic '42' "a million" times and can finish any line in the movie. So it was no surprise to Cindy when Malcolm asked her to take him to an essay workshop at the New Orleans Urban Youth Academy featuring MLB educational consultant Sharon Robinson, the contest champion who just so happens to be Jackie's daughter.

"We found out that they were going to have a Breaking Barriers assembly and that Ms. Sharon Robinson was going to be there," Cindy Venable recalled. "He was so excited. He asked me if we could go out and buy some balls; he wanted an autographed ball from her. He couldn't wait to meet her, even if he didn't win the contest, that at least he would have a chance to meet her. That was how it all came about."

Malcolm made an impression on Robinson during their first meeting -- so much so that Robinson had to contain herself when she saw his name among the finalists' essays.

"I recognized his name, and then I said, 'Oh my God, he did it,'" she said, "because he really told that story in its fullness, and then when we got to judging, again I didn't say anything about the fact that we had met Malcolm until after judging. And when it came to the voting, it was unanimous that Malcolm was the grand prize winner. I was really so very happy and so very proud of him."

That merited a hug from Malcolm, who then promptly turned and administered another hug, this one to his mom.

Not only did Malcolm win the grand prize out of 18,000 entries -- which netted him a school visit and class set of books from Robinson as well as a trip to Cincinnati for the All-Star Game -- but MLB is also sending him to Camp SAY, a two-week sleep-away camp for kids who stutter, next month.

But the biggest prize of all was one not listed in the contest description.

Writing his essay, Malcolm said, "made me feel good about myself that I could do it. I could do anything that I put my mind to."

Yes, indeed, Malcolm: you won the whole thing.

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Megan Zahneis is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.