LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Before Jake Taraska turned 3, doctors told his parents he would probably never be able to walk or talk.
Today, the Lakewood Ranch resident is a talented baseball player for Inspiration Academy who hopes to play in college.
But most importantly, the 17-year-old cancer survivor is on a mission to help other kids who are still battling the dreaded disease and are in need of hope.
"I am involved because I wouldn't be here today without all the support I got from so many people. I feel the least I could do is give back," Taraska said.
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Famed ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale said Taraska has gone above and beyond the call of duty in helping in the fight against cancer.
He has invited the youngster to Friday's 10th annual Dick Vitale Gala, which raises money for pediatric cancer research for the Jimmy V Foundation.
"He is one of the most courageous and special young people that I have ever met," Vitale said. "Jake is a big example for people to see and understand that their dollars do work. I met him several years ago when he lived in New Jersey, and he can't do enough to help us generate dollars to help other kids."
Taraska doesn't see himself as a hero, but he knows
he can be an inspiration to other kids in all walks of life. He is cancer-free now, but he still has to deal with some of the aftereffects.
At 18 months old, Taraska was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor that develops in nerve tissue and affects the brain and nervous system. His tumor developed in his abdomen, according to his mother, Alli.
It affected his speech, and he still can't ride a bike because he cannot maintain his balance. But he can hit a baseball, Inspiration Academy head baseball coach Chuck Sandberg said.
"From the way he plays, I wouldn't know about his situation," Sandberg said. "He is an inspiration to the other guys on the team because they know about his background. When things are not going well for them, they can keep things in perspective and see what he has done."
Sandberg said the 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior outfielder is blessed with speed and power. Taraska preaches that people must believe in themselves.
"My stuttering is a lot better now. Back then, I could barely talk to my friends and family because I would stutter all the time and I couldn't go out with my friends and ride bikes," Taraska said. "I still can't ride a bike, but my balance is a lot better and I can hit a baseball."
After years of physical and occupational therapy and speech therapy Taraska was able to overcome many of the obstacles he was confronted with. But he has never forgotten there are many children who aren't so fortunate. He has done many things to help, including meeting with them and adopting different kinds of fundraisers in raising has raised more than $10,000 for the Jimmy V Foundation.
He joined FACTR (Finding a Cure through Recruiting), a travel baseball team that raises money for children battling cancer and last February put together his own fundraising event "Baseball with a Purpose." He set up a 22-inning game to represent the 22 years since the V Foundation was created.
When he was younger growing up in the Philadelphia area, Taraska made blankets and donated toys with his baseball team for a local hospital that housed terminally ill children who had cancer.
Jake also spreads encouragement by visiting kids in various stages of the disease and telling them his story.
"It depends on their situation, but I basically tell them my story and that the doctors told me that I would probably not survive. I kind of give them a little hope and tell them if I can do it then they can," Taraska said. "I just tell them to believe in something. They may be thinking 'why me' and in the long term they may be thinking 'why not me.' I feel if they have a good perspective on life, they will make difference in society."