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Winning essay symbolizes fan's resilience

NEWBURG, Md. -- When Sharon Robinson, daughter of the legendary Jackie Robinson, was asked during an assembly at Piccowaxen Middle School what values and ideals her father best epitomized, she pointed to courage and determination.

Few today embody those values better than seventh-grade student Hunter Youngblood, the reason Robinson made the trip to the Newburg, Md., community of about 3,000 to speak at a school with a student body of just 460.

Youngblood was one of four first-place winners in Major League Baseball's Breaking Barriers essay contest, which recognizes students who use the personal values of Jackie Robinson to overcome adversity. As a result, the school held an assembly featuring Robinson, Charles County commissioner Reuben Collins and -- accounting for Youngblood's favorite part of the assembly -- a surprise visit from The Oriole Bird, the mascot of Hunter's favorite Major League team.

"First place out of a big number of students like that was amazing," the admittedly nervous Youngblood said in his typically reserved tone. "It's good to get my story out and get people to hear what I was going through. It kind of teaches a lesson to not give up if you're having a hard time."

Youngblood wrote his essay describing his struggles with a working memory deficiency, and his work was selected from a pool of about 6,000 entries. As a result of his essay, Hunter received tickets for himself and his family to sit along the first-base line at the second Orioles game of his life. He was also honored with a pregame ceremony on the field, during which O's center fielder Adam Jones presented Youngblood with a No. 42 jersey, the number Robinson wore. Youngblood also got to watch batting practice from behind home plate, getting autographs from Chris Davis, Luis Ayala and even a few of the Yankees.

He also received a new laptop computer, a Breaking Barriers T-shirt, a class set of Promises to Keep books signed by Sharon Robinson and the school-wide assembly.

"To be recognized by your school and by Major League Baseball and by an individual club just further reinforces that you are making a difference in your own life and in also now helping other people," Robinson said.

Youngblood's story is one of perseverance and courage.

Because of his learning disability, Youngblood struggles to organize information, making it harder to remember things.

"He'd probably have to spend eight hours studying a test that may take an hour and a half for another child," his father, Jay Youngblood, said. "But he's never complained about doing homework and working harder to get stuff done, and on top of that, he's very active in the community."

The Youngbloods were able to work with the Board of Education to come up with a program that allows Hunter the opportunity to bring textbooks home and take extra time on tests.

Through the use of visual cues and the accommodations of his teachers, Youngblood has been able to frequent the honor roll and earn a spot in the National Junior Honor Society.

Youngblood also plays on a travel soccer team, has done work for charity and is one of the most talented members of the school chorus, which performed at the assembly.

"Hunter is a very quiet and reserved young man," said Social Studies teacher Leslie Johns, adding that Youngblood never shies away from asking for help if he needs it. "He's very serious about his studies, very reserved, but very thorough and never fails to surprise me. if we're doing something in the classroom, other students might be done well before him, but he understands to do the job that will make him proud of himself. He might be the very last one done, but he is OK with that. He accepts that."

Robinson said she hoped the experience would inspire others to face whatever barriers confront them in life, adding that simply writing them down and expressing one's struggles can be a great way to start.

Johns said she thought Hunter's story would make a major difference, just at Piccowaxen.

"Next year, instead of 20 entries, maybe I'll get 50 entries," Johns said. "Maybe I'll get 100. But that's my goal, for this to inspire."

Baltimore Orioles, Luis Ayala, Chris Davis, Adam Jones