WEST CHESTER, Ohio -- Throughout her 14 years, ninth-grader Meggie Zahneis has never shied from a challenge and continues to conquer one obstacle after another. That determination, and a charming personality, has not only given a life without limits, it's opened many doors. And the one she's about to walk through is a really big one. Meggie, who penned the grand-prize-winning essay last summer in Major League Baseball's Breaking Barriers initiative, will become MLB.com's youth reporter and get to write stories about her hometown Cincinnati Reds and baseball at large.
"I am really blessed and really honored to be a part of something like this. It's a pretty cool feeling," Meggie said just before an assembly in her honor Thursday at the Lakota West Freshman School. With several dignitaries representing the game, including Sharon Robinson -- the daughter of baseball icon Jackie Robinson and the founder of the Breaking Barriers program -- and Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, Major League Baseball held a presentation for Meggie to announce her new job. As about a dozen media members and MLB staffers entered the auditorium before her classmates, Meggie was poised and didn't shrink under the spotlight. She even embraced Phillips not long after he walked in and the two had an extended private conversation -- although at one point, Meggie couldn't help shouting to her father, "Dad, come meet Brandon Phillips!" The two had interacted in the past at games or events, but Phillips didn't really meet her until Thursday. "She said I was so nice to sign her autographs all the time," Phillips said. "There's something about her presence that just makes you want to smile. I feel like I can just sit around and talk with her all day. She's very well-spoken." Breaking Barriers began in 1997, and each year it has held a contest for students in grades 4-8 to submit an essay about barriers or obstacles they faced, still face or overcame. Meggie was born with a very rare disorder known as HSAN II (Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathy, type 2), which causes her to be unable to feel pain, temperature and touch like most people. "With her disorder, there are not a lot of people that have it," said Meggie's mother, Cindy Zahneis. "So there is no one to look to to see what's going to happen or what's possible. I think she has pretty much exceeded what people thought might be possible." Meggie is also 100 percent deaf, if not for the aid of her cochlear implants. "It may not be on a baseball field, but I face many of the same social and emotional barriers that Jackie Robinson did," Meggie's winning essay read. "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." Meggie's essay was one of 10,000 received by Breaking Barriers this year. That large pool was broken down to 100 finalists. Meggie's was the clear winner, according to Robinson. "First of all, she is a very good writer," Robinson said. "The focus of her essay was on doing what I can do. What she can do is write. It was such a positive essay and a positive spirit that came out, and a great message for kids in general -- and adults. I know adults who have been inspired by her story, as well. It's a message for everybody. Be fearless. Don't let anyone stop you or tell you that you can't do something. Be fearless and move past it. Be the best you can be." Phillips was also impressed with the essay, especially the part about Meggie focusing her life on what she can do. "It really inspired me," Phillips said. "It touched my heart and showed me people should look at the world different. You really don't know what people go through." The grand prize was initially supposed to be a trip to the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix, but more opportunities soon came. Robinson and MLB asked Meggie to attend a game at the World Series in Arlington, and that was where she walked into the suite of Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig. Meggie has a way of making fast friends with people from all walks of life, and this one opened another door for her. "I've brought a number of kids to the Commissioner's office for the Breaking Barriers contest. He met her very briefly at the All-Star Game, and I knew it wasn't enough," Robinson said. "I said I needed a picture of Meggie and the Commissioner together at the World Series for our program. "[Selig] just embraced her immediately. What he didn't know was just how strong her knowledge was about baseball. The two of them sat down and fell into this conversation where they were laughing and talking. And they were talking baseball. When he called me, he said, 'I couldn't get her off my mind. She reminds me of [my daughter] Wendy when she was a young girl.' She was that interested in baseball and that knowledgeable." Meggie impressed Selig in a profound way. With full support of the leadership at MLB.com and in the league office, he knew Meggie should have a meaningful opportunity in baseball. By the end of the World Series, her breakthrough job was in place. Selig personally told Meggie about the offer on a recent conference call that included Robinson. Meggie also will become a special envoy for Breaking Barriers to continue to share her experience and to encourage kids to write their own stories. "It was a dream come true," Meggie said of the All-Star Game and World Series. "Now to be able to go and do that on a regular basis, I can't even imagine." "MLB just keeps calling us and it's one thing after another -- getting to do all the things she has, the World Series and now this wonderful opportunity," Cindy Zahneis said. "She loves to write and loves baseball. She's had to struggle in her life with different things, but there have been a lot of positive things to keep her going. And this, obviously, I don't know how it can be topped." On Thursday, Robinson announced that the Breaking Barriers essay contest was expanding to allow ninth-grade applicants to share their experiences. Not only did Meggie get her entire school out of class for nearly an hour, her schoolmates can thank her for another bonus. While speaking, Reds chief operating officer Phil Castellini invited the entire school of about 600 students to a game at Great American Ball Park in April. "The fact that she's from Cincinnati and a Reds fan, this is her accomplishment," Castellini said. "We're just blessed to be along for the ride with her. We're blessed it's our town she is from and she supports our team. This is a day for her, but my thought coming here was, 'Let's make it a special day for the whole school and just make what's she has done all the more the special, because more people will get to enjoy it with her.'" During the event, Meggie presented Phillips with a special Breaking Barriers jersey with Jackie Robinson's No. 42 on the back. "Amazing, especially as a Reds fan. I've always been a fan of him," Meggie said of Phillips earlier. "To get to meet him, it's absolutely amazing." Now she will get to meet and speak with Reds players all season long. The next time, it will be part of her job.