CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Anaya Ellick’s penmanship is so good, she recently won a national handwriting contest.

That’s impressive for any 7-year-old, but even more so because of this:

Anaya has no hands, and she does not use prosthetics for help.

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Recently, her teacher, Joan Stalnaker, asked Anaya’s first-grade class at Greenbrier Christian Academy to write the word “share” and its definition and part of speech. Anaya hopped to her feet — standing helps her balance while writing — and swept up a pencil.

Balancing it between her arms, near her wrists, she weaved it across the page, producing perfectly neat letters.

“She definitely is one determined little girl,” Stalnaker said.

Anaya’s honor is given by Zaner-Bloser, which produces reading, writing, spelling and handwriting materials and gives awards to kindergartners through eighth-graders in a variety of categories.

The company receives about 300,000 entries each year. A small percentage of those are for the Nicholas Maxim Special Award for Excellence in Manuscript Penmanship, which Anaya won.

Anaya, 7, was born with stubs where most people’s wrists begin.

Doctors knew about it before she was born, but they didn’t know why, said her mother, Bianca Middleton. They were concerned she might have other problems, such as Down syndrome or difficulty walking without a brace.

That didn’t happen — in every other way, Anaya is a regular little girl. Still, Middleton was worried when Anaya was born. Beyond potential physical problems, she feared people might treat her daughter differently — or badly — because of her appearance.

But when Anaya was only a few days old, she was already making an impression. She couldn’t hold a pacifier, but she was keeping it in her mouth by cupping it there with one arm.

While still a baby, she figured out how to hold a fork to eat and how to build with blocks.

“She helped me be comfortable with it,” Middleton said.

From an early age, Anaya got the message from her family that she could do anything. But it hasn’t been that simple. She is fiercely independent, apt to reject offers for help. In her first few years, she grew frustrated when she wasn’t able to complete a task.

When she was 3 years old, she started using prosthetics. Her father, Gary Ellick Jr., reminded himself of the Bible verse Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

But Anaya’s struggles still bothered him.

“Sometimes it can get discouraging,” he said.

Anaya’s family continued to preach patience to her. She continued to insist on doing things on her own, thinking situations through and figuring them out.

When she wanted to draw, she learned how to balance a crayon or marker between her arms. By the time she was 5, she stopped using prosthetics. They were slowing her down more than helping, her mother said.

One day in a doctor’s office, Anaya noticed a young boy with a prosthetic leg. She went right over and started playing with him.

“I have the coolest daughter ever,” Middleton said.

Those who know Anaya say her intelligence helps her greatly. One day, as she and her father walked around a grocery store, he made observations about various vegetables. Three times, she stopped to correct him.

“She just knows,” her father said.

She has also learned how to figure things out on the fly. A few weeks ago, the family came across a contest that involved throwing and catching popcorn.

“I can do it,” Anaya said.

Some watching wondered how she would fare. Soon enough she was pulling in the popcorn on her arms and heaving it back the same way.

“She knows what needs to get done and she does it,” said Tracy Cox, principal of Greenbrier Christian’s Foundations and Bridge Academy, which houses the private school’s lower grades.

Next on Anaya’s list of things to do: “I just want to try karate,” she said. She saw a cousin try it and decided she’s going to as well.

Down the road, she’s not sure. “I like to draw,” she said, especially flowers and anything abstract. Or, as she describes it, “When you draw whatever you want in art.”

Anaya’s art skills are beyond a first-grade level, Stalnaker said. She also likes to sing, though. And she enjoys learning about everything from rocks and minerals to space exploration, so a job as a scientist or astronaut might be in her future.

Stalnaker wasn’t quite sure what to expect when the school year began. A teacher for 13 years, she had never had a student without hands.

Her worries ended quickly. Anaya sometimes stands up while writing to gain better control but requires no additional help.

Instead, she has helped create a stronger classroom. She’s naturally energetic, with a certain charisma, Stalnaker said. Other students seem to admire her.

“There was nothing I needed to do,” Stalnaker said.

After the lesson on sharing last week, students gathered for a chapel service in part to honor Anaya for her handwriting award. Cox read the Bible story in which underdog David defeats the giant warrior Goliath in battle.

Anaya has things in common with David, Cox told the children.

Then she spoke directly to her students, with a gentle reminder of what Anaya overcame to win her award.

“You don’t have any excuses for having sloppy handwriting,” she said.

© 2016 The Virginian-Pilot
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