‘I’m not the type of person who asks for help’

Parker native puts pride aside in campaign to buy special needs van

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Like a lot of 4-year-olds, Ava Johnson’s favorite thing to do is dance.

“She loves music, she loves dancing,” Ava’s mother, Jessica, says. “She’s a way better dancer than I am.”

Ava boogies around the living room floor just fine, but Jessica, a Parker native from the Cottonwood neighborhood, needs help getting Ava to visits with her doctors and therapists.

Ava was born with several health problems, including hydrocephalus and epilepsy, causing near-constant seizures. At 3 years old, doctors performed a hemispherectomy, removing the left half of her brain. The procedure reduced her seizures but left her mostly paralyzed on her right side and compounded her vision loss. Developmentally, she performs at the same level as 8-or 9-month-olds.

Jessica is 5 feet 3 inches tall, and Ava, at 3 feet 7, is rapidly gaining on her. It’s getting increasingly difficult for Jessica to lift Ava and her accessories into the SUV they borrow from Jessica’s mother.

As she watches Ava playing in the children’s section of the Douglas County Libraries Parker branch, Jessica reflects on the challenges they’ve faced so far.

“It’s a very special thing to have every small feat that she’s been trying so hard for to be so big and so celebrated,” she says. “It makes it that much more special. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

About two years ago Jessica began saving money to buy an adapted van that will allow her to transport Ava and her wheelchair more easily. Jessica takes care of Ava full-time and Medicaid only covers one-fifth of Ava’s medical expenses. They rent Jessica’s late grandmother’s house in south Denver to save as much as they can, but it’s slow going.

Then, in January, Jessica was in a five-car collision. She and Ava were fine, but their car was totaled, adding another setback to the goal of buying the van.

“This is an exorbitant expense for any family,” she says, but “special needs families have so many other expenses that aren’t covered” by insurance or Medicaid.

“I’m not the type of person who asks for help,” she says. But she realized she wouldn’t be able to afford the van without it, so she reluctantly set up a GoFundMe page, “Wheels for Ava.”

Overcoming pride was just one obstacle. Jessica says another fundraising issue is the prevalence of other self-funding pages on the internet.

Fundraising websites are full of people requesting money to finance everything from moving expenses to vacations, competing for attention and money, with pages like Jessica and Ava’s.

“Social media is oversaturated with people asking for money that they don’t need,” Jessica says, noting she’s already made payments on the van, reserved at Performance Mobility in Highlands Ranch. “People are desensitized because everybody has a GoFundMe page. It makes it so difficult for people who actually do need these things.”

There has been more interest from the public since a recent story about her and Ava was featured on CBS 4, Jessica says, getting her closer to her goal and reconnecting her with former classmates.

“So many of them are people I went to high school with,” she says. “There are a lot of people from Chaparral on there.”

The buzz increased her fundraising total to about $14,000, where it currently stands. It’s a long way from $50,000, but she, and Ava, are on their way.

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