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Breaking Barriers winner honored for sharing story

NEW YORK -- Young Luke Lunday has learned how the power of introspection can change a life. Luke, the grand prize winner of the annual Breaking Barriers essay contest, was honored at Citi Field on Monday night, and he returned for a trip to the All-Star Game on Tuesday night.

That trip, a journey the 11-year-old called "amazing," came about because of his own ingenuity. Luke is stricken with a form of cerebral palsy, but with the love of his family and his own determined nature, he's learned that you can't allow the outside world to put restrictions on what you can do.

For Luke, his winning essay -- and the process that led to it -- has led to true change in his life. The youngster discovered a love of writing and for baseball in the last few months, but more importantly, he's learned how he can live with his condition and how to explain it to other people.

And that was exactly the point of the essay contest. Breaking Barriers -- a program dedicated to overcoming obstacles in sports and in life -- was developed by Major League Baseball and Scholastic Inc. as a tribute to the late Jackie Robinson, a true American icon of sports and civil rights.

Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, played a lead role in developing the program and in consulting on its direction, and she revels in seeing people use her father's experiences as a reference for social change. In Luke, said Robinson, Breaking Barriers found a truly inspirational story.

"We look for the process," said Robinson of Lunday's winning essay. "He tells you that he has mild CP and that he's been told he can't ride a bike without training wheels. He gives all these things he can't do, and he's saying, 'I want to ride my bike without training wheels. I want to be a normal kid.'

"So his mother took him to the top of a grassy hill, and for two years, he rode up and down until he learned to ride without training wheels. It's very cool that his mother was smart enough to come up with a soft landing, and in his own determination not to have restrictions placed on him from the outside."

Luke's winning essay came in a year where Breaking Barriers set a record with more than 18,000 submissions, a phenomenon perhaps traceable to the motion picture "42" that celebrated Robinson's life. But even with all that competition, Luke stood out because of his sincerity.

Luke's mother, Erin Lunday, said Tuesday that her son has just started to be comfortable talking about his condition and that his essay played a transformational role. A few months ago, Lunday spoke to a class at school about his condition, and his teacher mentioned the Breaking Barriers contest.

Luke took his assignment home, and he began sharing things on paper that he didn't know how to speak about in person. The more amazing part? He went from not wanting anybody at his school to know about his condition to being completely open about his trials and tribulations.

"He asked that they not share it with anyone else. And they were great," said Erin Lunday. "When he wrote the essay, he came home and had to do some rewrites. He was frustrated and in tears, because it's painful for him to write. I told him, 'Just write it for the assignment. Don't worry about submitting it.'

"It was supposed to be submitted during spring break, and the teacher went out of his way to have them send the essays in on spring break, and then he submitted it. It was amazing."

From there, the Lundays all but forgot about the essay contest. They went about their lives and didn't think at all about the essay until they returned from spring break. That's when the Lundays got a call from their school's principal about Luke, instantly sparking a bout of uncertainty.

"I'm thinking, 'Oh no, what happened now?' He made the announcement and I started crying," said Erin Lunday. "We weren't expecting it, because we're very private people. We don't really ask for a lot of media attention or anything, and being a military family, we keep it on the down-low. But this has been good for him. When Mrs. Robinson came to present the gifts at the school, he read his essay in front of the entire school. Now he's not afraid to tell people that he has cerebral palsy."

That's especially timely for the Lunday family, which just moved from West Point, N.Y., to Dayton, Ohio. Young Luke is in a new community and meeting new people at school, and his newfound self-assurance and confidence will do wonders for his transition to a new community.

And so will his brush with celebrity. Lunday got to meet his favorite player this week, Robinson Cano of the Yankees, and he got several autographs from the respective All-Stars. Lunday rode a zip line as part of his trip, and he said he looked forward to telling his new friends about his experience.

Lunday said that the essay has given him a newfound appreciation for both the game of baseball and for his ability as a writer, and he said that he loves the craft and would love to keep it as a hobby. Perhaps one day it could even be a calling, but young Lunday still has time for that.

"I put everything into it. I think it took maybe a month or two because of all the preparation and learning all the different traits of writing," said Lunday. "It was amazing. I was not expecting [to win]. I was kind of hoping for it. I didn't want first place because I already have a computer."

Erin Lunday, who watches her son speak with pride, can't help but think about how the essay has changed him forever. Luke Lunday is a young man who's now comfortable telling the world who he is and what he wants out of life, and amazingly, the world has responded to him.

"I think he'll be more comfortable discussing his disability," she said. "The challenges before, a lot of his friends said, 'Oh, that explains why you're so slow or why you stumble.' Before, they'd just say, 'Luke, hurry up!' And [now], they even said, 'Wow, Luke, we're sorry.' You can see a definite change even in the school population. When he's practicing shooting basketballs during recess, instead of the kids getting frustrated that he's taking so much time, now they say, 'Great job, Luke!'"

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for