“I would always have to tell her, ‘Be careful, Sharonda! Stop twirling around in the kitchen.’” Annie McNickles felt early on that her adopted daughter Sharonda McNickles was made to be a ballerina.  At just nine years old, Sharonda is a tremendously accomplished in her craft, receiving a prestigious scholarship from Joffrey Ballet Company and landing the coveted role of the Russian Doll in the Chicago company’s December production of Nutcracker. But what makes Sharonda truly remarkable is her perseverance through the obstacles she’s faced, through no fault of her own.

In 2003, Sharonda was born severely drug-exposed, weighing just barely over four pounds with a host of medical problems. Six months later, weighing only ten pounds, she found a permanent home with former special education teacher and former foster care mother Annie.  Annie had already adopted Sharonda’s older brother, David, who also battled drug-exposure at birth, so when Sharonda came along, Annie knew she had to take her.  She tells EBONY.com, “I wanted to keep them together as a family, if it is at all possible, because I’m a very strong believer in family.”

But even surrounded by love and family, Sharonda had a tough road ahead of her. Due to the drug-exposure, she’d suffered significant damage to her respiratory system. Annie recalls many long hours spent at Chicago’s LaRabida Children’s Hospital with Sharonda. ”Sometimes we would be at [LaRabida’s] Acute Care Clinic as much as three times a week and she would stay there for hours – basically all day or late afternoon to closing time. It was very difficult because sometimes doing these crisis situations she would have to have asthma treatments to make sure she has enough oxygen in her system.”

Outside of her asthma — and much like her brother, David — Sharonda also displayed signs of excessive hyperactivity, another side-effect of the drug exposure.  Even with medication, Sharonda still had so much energy and trouble focusing that Annie decided to put Sharonda in gymnastics to put Sharonda’s energy to good use.  She excelled in gymnastics, but when Sharonda was enrolled in a creative movements class at her elementary school, her principal noticed that she was also a great dancer, and got the Joffrey Ballet Company to start a partnership program with the elementary school.  Through this partnership, Sharonda received a scholarship to train with the Company.  Noticing her love and knack for the art, Annie took Sharonda out of gymnastics and let her focus all her energy on ballet, becoming a star performer, and beating out dozens of contenders for the Nutcracker role.

Annie is still blown away by her daughter’s success: “She is just doing so well, and I never thought she would get to this point because she was such a sickly baby.” Annie gives all credit “definitely to God and the hospital staff at LaRabida,” whom she says has been extremely supportive of her and her children, including David and Sharonda’s two younger, biological siblings, Jorja and Makiya, all of whom were born under the same circumstances and whom Annie adopted shortly after birth. Annie says of LaRabida’s staff, “They still know these children by name; it’s an exceptional place.”

Just as she has with the LaRabida staff, Annie has also maintained a relationship with her four children’s birth parents to ensure Sharonda and her siblings know their blood relatives, despite the pain she feels for what her children have had to endure. Annie says of her children’s birth mother:

“I get angry because she put them through so much, but I get over it real quick. My heart is very tender for my children, but my heart also goes out to their mother because she wasn’t always this way. She is a human being and has her issues and got caught up in the wrong side of life. But there is still hope for her. And on the other side of it, I feel like I was blessed with four beautiful children. Her loss is my gain.”

Annie beams that all of her children are getting healthier and shining in their own way. “They all love to dance! The older three each have Joffrey scholarships and the youngest one is sure to get one soon. They came through a rough time, especially Sharonda and David, but they are all very bright. They work hard in school and they are happy children.”

Though Sharonda is not free of health problems and will always need some level of medical support, Annie is relieved to know her daughter is getting better and feeling better about herself and what she can achieve.  “Sharonda still has a lot of challenges, but it’s nothing like when she was born. She’s doing so well and I’m hoping that she will continue to do what she truly loves to do and really continue to feel truly great about herself.  [Because of ballet,] she knows that she can achieve her dreams and develop discipline and self-control and do anything she wants to do in life. That’s all I want for her.”

See Sharonda Perform in the Joffrey Ballet’s Production of ‘Nutcracker’ in Chicago through December 27.

Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.