VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Sharon Robinson felt “shaken” while standing in the meeting room named after her father, Jackie, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
She was speaking to the softball players participating in MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series, a tournament featuring talented women from diverse communities across the world.
Her emotions weren’t nostalgia-driven, even though the RBI World Series’ new home is the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, where her father participated Spring Training with the Dodgers.
Rather, Robinson was compelled by the words she was reading aloud and the teary-eyed reaction of the young woman who wrote them: RBI of Greater Harrisburg’s Courtney Coppersmith. Moments like that are exactly why Robinson created the Breaking Barriers essay contest 22 years ago.
“I’m all about kids finding their voice, so this is another way to find your voice -- when you write,” Robinson said. “When you write it down, that’s your voice, and you're speaking through your words. I want them to be able to ask for help. I want them to know that adults care about them and want to support them however they can. So, I’m hoping that they get that message with the RBI program, they get it from their coaches.”
Coaches of all eight teams in attendance submitted one of their players’ essays -- which describe how they overcame obstacles in life -- for award consideration. But Robinson said Coppersmith’s stood above the rest because it thoroughly detailed conditions many are reluctant to talk about: anxiety and depression.
“Some of those girls may be going through similar things and wondering, ‘Why am I feeling this way?’” Robinson said. “And to hear one of their peers step forward and say, 'listen, this is depression.' When you lose your motivation and don’t want to go out of your room, that’s depression, and then you have to do something about it.”
Coppersmith wrote about some of the hardest moments of her life. She described how, on a team bus ride, she cried for four hours because she felt “completely worthless.” She admitted contemplating suicide. Writing about those experiences was an emotional release for Coppersmith, and she hopes other depression victims find comfort in it as well.
“It’s something that needed to be said,” said Coppersmith, who now pitches collegiately at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “For me, personally, it’s part of my journey, getting back to being mentally stable and being OK to actually be happy in life. I think it will help a lot of other people because I’ve been there, where you don’t want to talk to anybody and you just kind of keep it inside. It helps when you finally find somebody who’s going through the same thing as you.”
Coppersmith says the connections the Breaking Barriers contest create are part of what makes it so important. Players from vastly different backgrounds can relate to one another based on their shared struggles in life, whether that’s depression, poverty or anything else.
But even if some keep their essays to themselves, Coppersmith believes there’s a benefit in the process.
“Being able to write something down sometimes is a lot easier than talking, because you can keep your own little journal and not have to share it with anybody,” she explained. “And when you’re eventually comfortable talking to somebody, you can take it to them. You can say, ‘Hey, this is how I felt this day, this is how much better it was a week later, or how much worse it was.’”
When Jackie Robinson signed his first contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he instantly became a source of inspiration for those feeling trapped by their life’s circumstances. And his daughter’s essay contest is keeping that inspiration as strong as ever -- especially considering it’s awarded on the grounds her father once roamed.
“I think there’s going to be something special about coming back here,” Robinson said.