With a shy smile and wizened eyes that come from an early childhood filled with challenges, Alena Korins, 10, found a kindred spirit in the unlikeliest of places: the pages of baseball history.
More than 50 years after Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball, Alena celebrated overcoming her own obstacles with Jackie's daughter, Sharon, in attendance.
The Merrick fourth-grader, who spent her early years in a Russian orphanage, was one of nine national winners of the Breaking Barriers essay contest, sponsored by Scholastic and MLB to recognize students who overcome barriers in the manner of Robinson.
Sharon Robinson, 50, spoke to about 70 students at the Birch School Monday and recalled her father's early years in the big leagues, as well as his meeting with Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, where Rickey told him to "hold back your natural instinct to fight back" against threats and slurs.
Sharon Robinson, along with the enthusiastically welcomed mascot Mr. Met, presented Alena with a laptop computer. Her teacher, Arlene Musnik, will also receive one. Alena was also honored with fellow winner Myles Hutcherson, 10, of New Jersey, last night before the Mets game at Citi Field.
"She told me it was the best day of her life," when she won, Alena's mother, Ellen said. "Then she said 'no, that was the day I came to America.' "
Alena was born in Russia, lost her father and was abandoned by her mother. Though she's not sure when, she, along with her two older brothers, were sent to live with her aunt shortly after. Eventually, the two younger children were placed in separate orphanages, where "they really didn't treat us well," she said. The essay reads: "Even though I didn't like the orphanage, I was determined to make my life better. . . . Me and my best friend, Ola, helped little kids. We played with them, read stories to them and gave them showers."
Alena was adopted 2 1/2 years ago, mastered English and jumped at the opportunity to put it to good use.
"It's good to write something about yourself," she said. "You tell someone about it and it could be really important."