Imagine doctors telling your parents that you’ll never be able to do anything in life because you have a disability. Wouldn’t that be a downer? Well, that’s what they told Mr. and Mrs. Crenshaw when Willa was born at only 27 weeks and suffered from a serious brain injury. The normal time of development before birth is 37-42 weeks. Willa has a condition called cerebral palsy, or CP, and Mrs. Crenshaw said the doctors were trying to prepare her for life with a disabled child.
But Willa, who has a twin brother named Chief and four other siblings, is a fighter. “She’s overcome all these things that people never thought she would,” said her mom. “She’s the most determined, persistent kid that I’ve ever known.”
That’s why we’ve chosen Willa as this month’s Kid Hero. Willa is eight years old and in the second grade at Skyline Heights Elementary School in Harrison, Arkansas. She’s in a special K-4 class called Life Skills with 20 other children who have special needs.
She also spends time in a mainstream, general education class. “Our goal is to see
that time increase,” said Mrs. Crenshaw. But with the coronavirus, her school—like schools all across the country—is closed. “She really misses it right now. She misses her friends,” Mrs. Crenshaw said.”
To give you an idea of how far this little girl has come, she was supposed to come home from the NICU (Newborn Intensive Care Unit) on oxygen, but her mom said, “she beat that before she even got home. She had a feeding tube too. By the time she was a year old, she got to have that removed.”
Then there was the problem of movement. With CP, the brain can’t control muscle movement. Willa is a hemiplegic, which means her brain injury caused her right side to be partially paralyzed. She couldn’t walk either. But being the determined girl that she is, she figured out how to get around. “She can’t use her right arm hardly at all. She can’t crawl because you need both arms to crawl,” Mrs. Crenshaw said. When she was very young, she began using her good arm to lift her bottom, and so she learned to scoot. “She scoots everywhere.”
In 2018 Willa went to St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri for a promising surgery for kids with CP. It was pioneered by a world-famous doctor, T. S. Park. “It actually helped her. She’s starting to take steps. After the surgery, after lots of therapy and work, she’s starting to walk.”
Willa has different kinds of therapy every day to help her get stronger and improve her balance and walking. She gets speech therapy so she can communicate better and improve her conversational skills. She gets occupational therapy to help with ne motor skills, things like picking up toys and handwriting.
Willa & her brother Chief
One of Willa’s favorite things is a club she’s in called Tiny Super Heroes. It’s for kids with any type of disability. They give the children superhero capes. Willa loves wearing hers. It has a big W on the back.
One day, about two years ago, Mrs. Crenshaw and her friend Tiffany Watkins started talking about building a barrier-free park in Harrison. Mrs. Watkins was the president of the Harrison Rotary, a civic club that’s a branch of Rotary International. The organization raises money for projects that help people in need here in the United States and all over the world. The playground they dreamed of would be for all children, and specially designed without barriers so kids
with disabilities could play alongside full-functioning kids.
Donors and the Rotary club raised tens of thousands of dollars for the playground. “It’s almost done,” Mrs. Crenshaw explained. “We were supposed to have a grand opening this spring but it got canceled” because of the coronavirus. “It’s called the Rotary Club Wonder Willa Park, and it’s for everybody to be able to play together.”
The playground has a pirate ship theme and all kinds of cool features, like a wheelchair swing, rubber padding over concrete so kids who fall won’t get hurt and a slide that can be used by children with cochlear implants—special devices in their ears that allow deaf children to hear. The slide also has a ramp that Willa can scoot up.
“She can actually scoot up everything, said Mrs. Crenshaw. “She and Chief can be at the same playground, and I don’t have to go down the slide with her! She can play with children her age. That’s how she learns.”
Does Willa understand that the playground is named for her? Mrs. Crenshaw explained, “We were driving the other day, and she goes, ‘My park open?’ I’m afraid she’s gonna be like, ‘That’s MY park!’ She definitely knows. When the park opens, she’ll be the rst kid on the playground. She wants to be a part of everything so much that she’s just found a way to do it. It’s mostly been up to Willa. We kind of say, ‘where there’s a Willa there’s a way.’”