The most inspirational student at New Life Academy of Woodbury during the 2019-20 school year could rarely be found inside the building.
Ben Zheng sustained life-threatening injuries when he was hit by a car in August. More than survive, Zheng made what he could of his senior year despite severely diminished eyesight and reliance on a wheelchair.
No longer able to play soccer for the Eagles, Zheng attended multiple volleyball games during the fall. During the winter season, he could stand for short periods and even began shooting free throws on the basketball court.
"It was a 'Why not?' thing," said Zheng, a former basketball player. "My first attempt one time, I got it in. And then I couldn't make it again after that."
Just being there, with friends urging him on, was the point.
"Every single time I hung out with people, it was like I was storing up positivity to help me weather the bad days," Zheng said.
He reflected the support back, inspiring his peers to achieve their athletic bests. Zheng was selected for the Star Tribune All-Metro Difference-Maker Award, given to the person who displayed an extraordinary spirit of service and selflessness in supporting student-athletes and advancing high school athletics in the metro area.
"Our community continued to pray for you and rally around you as best we could," New Life Academy activities director Jed Moseman told Zheng. "To watch you rally yourself was just remarkable. I know your classmates and our community were so impressed by the courage you showed and just your resolve. It was never a 'Woe is me' type of thing. You were a difference-maker in our community."
After Zheng was hit by the car, he was taken to Regions Hospital in St Paul with multiple head fractures and a brain injury. After surgeries performed over a six- to seven-hour period, Zheng was transferred to the intensive care unit in serious but stable condition.
As the days passed, the swelling in his brain subsided. In early September, Zheng left the ICU for the acute rehabilitation unit. About two weeks later, he returned home. His short-term memory, ability to recognize familiar faces and hold conversations returned. Support poured in, with a GoFundMe campaign netting more than $34,000.
"Ben was unable to attend school this year but has served as an inspiration to our students for the courage he has shown while battling the effects of this tragedy," said Moseman, who nominated Zheng for the award. "Despite these setbacks, Ben wanted to be with his classmates as much as possible."
Said Zheng, "My friends are part of the pillars that hold me up."
Zheng said he is weighing options for a transitional school to help him adjust to living with permanent vision impairment. From there, Zheng plans to attend the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and earn a degree in marketing.
"There is no one that has any doubt that Ben is going to be successful in whatever he chooses to do," Moseman said.