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posted: 2/1/2016 5:40 AM

How soap box derby racing enhances life of special needs girl in South Elgin

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  • Video: Soap box racer Ava McCollim

 
 

Heather McCollim and her daughter Ava, then 7, were snuggled up watching videos online one day last year when they steered to one that would turn their difficult life path onto a smoother road.

The video featured a local girl racing soap box derby cars, and it immediately caught Ava's attention, Heather recalls.

"It made her jump up and yell, 'Mommy, I gotta try it. I gotta go fast!'" said Heather, a South Elgin resident.

Going fast is easy for Ava. She was born during a tornado and racing is in her blood, according to Heather. Her grandfather raced soap box derby cars in the 1940s, and her father raced full-sized cars until he died of brain cancer in 2012. Heather learned to build hot rods for an international auto auction company.

But Heather and Ava had been down this bumpy road before. Ava had been turned away from participating in other organizations because of her health problems, her mom says.

Serious and frequent epileptic seizures had damaged Ava's brain development and caused the little girl, who loves to wear a pink tutu, to drift onto the autism spectrum. She has trouble making eye contact and can't follow a train of thought, according to Heather. As a third-grader, she can't read.

Ava also was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which makes her easily distracted and excited. She sometimes needs to spin to calm herself down, her mother says, and attends special education classes at school.

Despite the challenges, Heather tried to get Ava involved in dance, softball and cheerleading, but "people didn't have the patience to deal with her. They didn't know how to handle her," she said.

Each time she was told "because of the autism and stuff, we won't be able to work with her," Heather said.

After watching the video of soap box derby racer Grace Iglehart, Heather called Grace's father, Stan Iglehart, who was race director of the Geneva Soap Box Derby Association.

He invited the pair to his home to start training. Then he put Ava in a car on a ramp during a race weekend in St. Charles.

"I still cry when I think about that day," Heather said. "She was smiling as she went down the ramp."

Other parents took notice.

"Half the men stood up and went, 'A girl in a pink tutu just went by us!'" Heather said. "And all the moms came and hugged me. All it took was that one run and we were welcomed into the derby."

Ava is now 8 years old, with a summer of racing behind her. Heather says Ava's school work has improved and her seizures have calmed.

"With having to steer the car and having to do everything on her own, she has developed more confidence within herself," Heather said.

It wouldn't have happened without the generosity of others.

"I was struggling to keep her in derby," she said. "I was paying for the races out of my own pocket."

While helping Heather learn about racing, Stan Iglehart also taught her how to approach businesses for sponsorship. Among the businesses who have paid for Ava's race entry fees and equipment, or donated time and facilities, are Marty's Automotive of Huntley, Barrington Masonic Lodge 522, Elgin Masonic Lodge 117, Dairy Queen and Posh Cosmetics of South Elgin, the Elgin Moose Lodge, Bartlett Candy House and Rage Wraps of Bartlett, Voodoo Larry Kustoms of Schaumburg, and a close friend of Heather's who started a GoFundMe account.

"I could not have done this by myself," Heather said. "When Ava's father passed away, he left us with nothing."

For now, soap box derby racing is everything.

"She likes how her derby car hugs her," Heather said. "It calms her."

Ava McCollim, 8, of South Elgin has flourished as a soap box derby racer. It has helped her focus and control her health and developmental issues, which include epileptic seizures and autism, according to her mother, Heather. Ava likes how the small car holds her tight, making her feel like a baby that's been swaddled.
  Ava McCollim, 8, of South Elgin has flourished as a soap box derby racer. It has helped her focus and control her health and developmental issues, which include epileptic seizures and autism, according to her mother, Heather. Ava likes how the small car holds her tight, making her feel like a baby that's been swaddled.
John Starks | Staff Photographer
Ava McCollim, of South Elgin, races her Scarlet Witch soap box derby car in Naperville. Racing has helped her focus and calm her epileptic seizures, says her mother, Heather.
  Ava McCollim, of South Elgin, races her Scarlet Witch soap box derby car in Naperville. Racing has helped her focus and calm her epileptic seizures, says her mother, Heather.
John Starks | Staff Photographer
Heather McCollim of South Elgin lifts her daughter Ava into the body of her soap box derby car, which was adjusted to regulation measurements by Stan Iglehart in his Geneva garage.
  Heather McCollim of South Elgin lifts her daughter Ava into the body of her soap box derby car, which was adjusted to regulation measurements by Stan Iglehart in his Geneva garage.
John Starks | Staff Photographer
Heather McCollim holds her daughter Ava, 8, who frequently wears her pink tutu, as they watch Stan Iglehart make detailed adjustments to the youngster's soap box derby car, called the Scarlet Witch after one of Ava's favorite comic superheroes.
  Heather McCollim holds her daughter Ava, 8, who frequently wears her pink tutu, as they watch Stan Iglehart make detailed adjustments to the youngster's soap box derby car, called the Scarlet Witch after one of Ava's favorite comic superheroes.
John Starks | Staff Photographer
Ava McCollim, 8, tucks in her pink tutu at the top of the starting ramp on a Naperville road. Soap box derby racing has helped the South Elgin girl to cope with her serious health problems, which include autism caused by epilepsy.
  Ava McCollim, 8, tucks in her pink tutu at the top of the starting ramp on a Naperville road. Soap box derby racing has helped the South Elgin girl to cope with her serious health problems, which include autism caused by epilepsy.
John Starks | Staff Photographer
Morning sunlight falls on 8-year-old Ava McCollim and her pink tutu as she buckles her helmet before racing her soap box derby car in Naperville. Racing has helped her focus her abundant energy. Her school work is improving and her epileptic seizures have calmed, says her mother Heather, of South Elgin.
  Morning sunlight falls on 8-year-old Ava McCollim and her pink tutu as she buckles her helmet before racing her soap box derby car in Naperville. Racing has helped her focus her abundant energy. Her school work is improving and her epileptic seizures have calmed, says her mother Heather, of South Elgin.
John Starks | Staff Photographer
Josh Petermann and Jon Stensrud, right, help Ava McCollim tighten the brake mount on her soap box derby frame. Stensrud is a member of Barrington Masonic Lodge 522, which donated money to buy Ava's first car.
  Josh Petermann and Jon Stensrud, right, help Ava McCollim tighten the brake mount on her soap box derby frame. Stensrud is a member of Barrington Masonic Lodge 522, which donated money to buy Ava's first car.
John Starks | Staff Photographer

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