"It got me thinking about how much more involved I could be in getting my father's message across," Sharon said.
She had several meetings with then National League president Leonard Coleman, now board chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which Rachel inaugurated 35 years ago.
"I came up with all these ideas to Len, most of which he responded to by saying 'No,'" Sharon recalled. "Then I said, 'How about going into the schools and talking about Jackie's character and how it can relate to children today.' 'Great, we can do that for baseball,' Len said. We reached out to a publisher. Scholastic was very interested and got this off the ground."
The program began in nine Major League markets, expanded to all big league markets within two years and for the past five years has been continent-wide. Breaking Barriers has reached more than 14 million children and 2.6 million educators in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. It has been used by Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), presented by KPMG.
Using baseball as a metaphor for life, the curriculum is based on values demonstrated by the barrier-breaking Robinson: determination, commitment, persistence, integrity, justice, courage, teamwork, citizenship and excellence. Utilizing baseball-themed features, activities and lessons, the program is designed to teach children in grades 4-6 values and traits they need to deal with the barriers and challenges in their lives.
Helping to carry the ball in the first year of the program in 1998 were Mike Piazza, who began that season with the Dodgers and later was traded to the Marlins and the Mets, and Alex Rodriguez, then with the Mariners.
"They were the first two, and they never hesitated," Sharon Robinson said. "We taped them during Spring Training. They spoke directly to kids in videos we could use in classrooms. A-Rod did his both in English and Spanish. Their involvement was crucial in helping us get our message across to other players."
A year later, the Major League Players Association came on board and has been supportive ever since as scores of players have devoted time to visit children in schools and at ballparks.
"Players talk about barriers they have faced in life," Sharon said, "about what obstacles they have had to deal with. Some players have talked about an issue many kids unfortunately can relate to, absent fathers. One player talked about how a girlfriend of his died while he was on the road. Players have talked about how a birth of their child took place while they were out of town. The players are also good at listening. It's amazing to see how kids feel comfortable with players."
Sharon recalled a session at a school in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan out of which came the Red Sox's Manny Ramirez when Bobby Valentine, then manager of the Mets, and his new first baseman, Mo Vaughn, paid a visit.
"There was a boy who talked about how difficult it was for him dealing with asthma and how kids in the schoolyard teased him and kicked away his Breathalyzer," Sharon said. "Mo was so moved that he embraced the boy, who then jumped on his lap, and Mo told a story about being taunted when he was a kid. There was a real connection there."
A major component of the program is the Breaking Barriers Essay Contest, which encourages children to write about barriers or obstacles they have faced or are still facing in their lives and how they used the values exemplified by Jackie Robinson to deal with them.
This year, 11,640 essays were submitted, 3,000 more than the previous record of 2007. Nine finalists are selected. The grand prize winner gets to accompany Sharon Robinson to the All-Star Game on July 15 at Yankee Stadium. Also honored are four first prize and four second prize winners. Prizes include laptop computers, a class set of Sharon's book, "Promise to Keep," Breaking Barriers T-shirts and, for the grand prize and first prize winners, a school visit from Sharon.