Sara Leuthy, a 2000 graduate of Payson High School, has learned an important lesson in life that everybody has strengths and weaknesses.
The person who taught her that lesson is her older sister Gretchen, a 22-year-old student at Eastern Arizona College in Payson, who has overcome a variety of disabilities
that would have stopped lesser people in their tracks.
By telling Gretchen's story in an essay, Sara has become one of four national winners in The Chicken Soup for the Soul Great American Write-Off.
As a winner, Sara will receive a cash award of $1,000. The sponsoring institution, Payson High School, also receives $1,000 and a hardcover set of "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books for classroom use.
For Sara, who is now living with family members in Eagle River, Wis., winning the competition was a great honor. But more important is the message she hopes she has conveyed in doing so that people need to be tolerant of those who are different, and that it is possible to overcome a handicap.
Gretchen, Sara said, was born with liver failure and a hole in her heart. While the hole closed without surgery, the liver infection left Gretchen mentally challenged developmentally delayed with severe dyslexia.
In the second grade, Gretchen was told she would never learn to read and write. Through a couple years of intense home schooling, she was able to overcome that obstacle, but as she progressed through school, other children treated her brutally, ridiculing her on a constant basis.
"It was hard for her to talk and she can't hear well," wrote Sara. "She would go home crying because people would pick on her ... The teachers were unwilling to spend a little extra time to help her."
Through perseverance, Gretchen made it through high school and graduated last year along with Sara. Now, as she pursues her college education, Gretchen has finally found a few close friends who are "patient and kind to her."
Calling Gretchen her inspiration, Sara wrote, "Because of her, it really saddens me to see others make fun of people who are not 'perfect' like they are.
"She has had a battle with death and won. She has survived ridicule, social prejudices, medical issues, and keeps on ignoring injustices to survive and be happy."
And Sara is less concerned today about Gretchen's future than ever before.
"There is another long journey ahead, but she is a fighter and will achieve anything she puts her mind to.
As Sara hangs out at the resort her family owns and operates in Wisconsin Leuthy's Meta Lake Lodge while establishing residency so she can attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her mother and Gretchen remain behind in the Rim country. Gail Leuthy shares Sara's pride in Gretchen's achievements, but she also is proud of what Sara has accomplished through telling her story.
"Sara is my little tiger," she said. "She just has a spark in her eyes. Her mind is always working on something."
Meanwhile Sara, who hopes to be a veterinarian one day, said she misses her friends, and the three dogs, two cats, two frogs and a bird that she left behind in the Rim country.
But most of all, she misses Gretchen.
"I just enjoy being around her, and I am so proud of what she has accomplished.