What’s your definition of hero? Some folks think of soldiers serving in foreign countries, battling terrorists and in hospitable climates. Other people might envision doctors who treat patients for free in impoverished countries or firemen who rush into burning buildings to rescue a child without a thought for their own safety. To be sure, all of these definitions are valid, but one Georgia hero comes in a very different package — that of a cheerful, charismatic and industrious 16-year-old girl.

Six years ago, Mackenzie Bearup was living the life of many preteen American kids. She went to school, hung out with her friends and family and watched favorite television shows like American Idol in her free time. However, Bearup’s life changed drastically one evening as she jumped and danced on a bed in time to the AI music. In one short moment, Bearup suffered a seemingly minor injury that turned into a major life event, and after that, her day-to-day routine became anything but average.

“It was really scary,” Bearup says, recalling the moment when she first felt the excruciating pain in her knee. “It was late at night, so we decided to see how it was in the morning, and when I woke up, it had swollen to the size of a grapefruit.”

An X-ray didn’t show any obvious injury, but Bearup learned later that her kneecap had slipped. She spent the next week on crutches, and when the pain grew in intensity, Bearup went back to the doctor to find answers.

“I was misdiagnosed for a few months, and I was very afraid when we couldn’t find out what was wrong,”she says. “I don’t think I realized it could last as long as it did.”

FINDING ANSWERS AND SOLUTIONS

Eventually, doctors diagnosed Bearup with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD). The disease causes mild to severe chronic pain, often without explanation, and affects anywhere from 200,000 to 1.2 million Americans. Currently, there is no cure.

“It’s hard to describe how the pain feels,” Bearup says. “It’s a burning, stabbing, exploding sharp pain that is very sensitive to weather, cold and vibration. A lot of people don’t realize how much or often things vibrate, but when you think about things like cars vibrating, it’s actually a lot.

“When I was first diagnosed, I stayed home from school a lot because I would hurt my knee constantly,” Bearup continues. “I was in a lot of pain a fair amount of time, so I started reading to take my mind off the pain.”

Bearup didn’t know it when she first turned to books for distraction, but her love of reading was about to take her life in a new direction. After discovering that she could forget about her pain when she was reading, she began thinking about other kids who might be helped in a similar way. Instead of focusing on her ongoing pain issues, Bearup turned her attention to other children in her community who were experiencing pain and decided to help as many as possible find relief through books, just as she had.

“I think any child being in horrible, intense pain like this, they need something,” Bearup explained in a CNN interview that introduced her as one of the network’s CNN Heroes. “And something that I knew helped me was books.

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”Bearup’s pediatrician told her about a nearby group of kids living in the Murphy-Harpst Children’s Center, a residential treatment center for some of the most severely abused children in the state of Georgia. When Bearup began researching the center, she found that although the center had recently built a library for its residents, it had no books to put on the shelves. Thinking about her own experience with pain and the tremendous relief that reading provided, Bearup went to work.

“I asked everyone I knew to donate books, and then I asked them to tell their friends,” she said in the CNN interview. Bearup’s initial goal was to collect 300 books for donation, but after distributing flyers, placing ads in newspapers and starting a website, she had amassed more than 3,000 books. Before long, the Murphy-Harpst library was full, and Bearup started looking for another organization that would benefit from a book donation. Word spread, and her donations grew.

bearup2222A FAMILY AFFAIR

“So far, since starting, we’ve collected more than 42,000 books,” she says. “We go to garage sales, and if the books aren’t sold, I ask the person to donate them. We’ve helped 44 centers, mostly homeless, abused children and family violence shelters.”

The “we” Bearup refers to is her family. Her brothers, Alex and Ben, have become an important part of the book donation operation, and her mother helped Bearup launch her own nonprofit, Sheltering Books, in 2009.

“My brothers were pretty confused when I was first diagnosed, and they would help me around the house, carrying things,” Bearup says. “Now, they help me count the books, sort them and deliver them to the shelters.

”The feedback from her efforts has been tremendous. In addition to being recognized as a CNN Hero, Bearup says she has experienced many gratifying one-on-one moments with the children in the shelters who have discovered the pleasures and escape provided by a good book.

“I’m a big reader, and I always read growing up,” she explains. “Almost all of my friends love to read as well, and they will donate their books when they are done with them. When one of the kids tells me that they have enjoyed reading a book that we donated, it makes me really happy.”

RECOGNIZING A MODERN-DAY HERO

During the interview for the Hero segment, CNN representatives came to Bearup’s house and filmed for three days. On the first day, Bearup and the CNN team visited her doctor’s office and treatment facility or CRPS. On the second day, filming took place at a library, where Bearup met with a group of kids and told them about her love of reading and explained how it took her mind off pain. For the final day, the CNN crew interviewed Bearup and her family at her home as they prepared to donate 5,000 books to an East Coast shelter for the homeless.

For some teenagers, the experience might have been overwhelming, but not for Bearup. Instead of dwelling on her newfound celebrity, the levelheaded 16-year-old began thinking about ways to make a good thing even better. In the future, she hopes to expand the Sheltering Books program to a national level and provide reading material at shelters in every state. Bearup is committed to increasing abearup3333wareness about the program as well as about children suffering with CRPS, all while making plans for her own future and encouraging other teenagers to pick up a book.

“When I was first diagnosed, I went online and found that quite a few teenagers have CRPS,” Bearup explains. “There was even one young girl who was about nine years old. A lot of people don’t realize how many kids are affected.

“Another thing that surprises many people is that something like 75 percent of the homeless kids in our country drop out of high school,” Bearup continues.“If these kids start reading for fun at the shelters, it will help them with their vocabulary, and they’ll probably get better grades in school. That leads to more self-confidence and to the kids really feeling better about themselves, and after that, they might even be ready to try for a scholarship.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Along with the kids served by the Sheltering Books program, Bearup hopes to take her philanthropic message to her peers. She thinks too many teenagers be-come cynical about their ability to implement meaningful change in the world, and she wants them to know that it is possible to help others while also enriching their own lives.“A lot of people — especially teenagers — are pretty apathetic,” Bearup says. “But it really is easy to make a difference in the world. When kids discover a love of reading, it can turn their lives around completely. I always tell people that they would be surprised to know how good it can make you feel to help a complete stranger.” {PP}