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."
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