"We need to go see Willie Nelson.”
This is not the typical reminder parents hear from their daughter, but Ava is anything but typical.
The five-year-old from Amarillo, Texas, underwent 12 surgeries in the first 15 months of her life, and had 60 percent of her intestines removed. She relies on a feeding tube, but none of this slows Ava down.
She has a fight, and a will, and a great spirit,” her mother says.
Ava is a big fan of Willie Nelson - possibly his littlest biggest fan. Nelson’s songs appeal to Ava, and her parents, Jamison and Brittany, credit the musician in helping with their daughter’s recovery.
Born premature at 27 weeks, Ava spent 213 days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She lived in an incubator and her parents were limited to two-hour visits per day.
During her stay in NICU, you know, we’re not allowed to stimulate the babies too much,” Jamison explained. “But we were allowed to play music for her and hold her hand.”
Jamison would play songs from the “older” country music artists, and he and his wife noticed how well Ava responded to the music.
“We started playing that [music] all the time and she loved it,” Jamison recalls. “Any time she was having a bad day, you could play Willie Nelson, or Johnny Cash, or Ray Price, and her stats would come up. She would start doing better almost immediately.”
Her parents continued to play country music throughout Ava’s hospital stay.
"When she got older and wanted to listen to music, she loved Willie Nelson,” Jamison says, “and it’s just taken off from there. Now she’s Willie’s biggest fan.”
Because he and his music mean so much to Ava, she always requests a photo of Willie Nelson on her birthday cake. Last year, the picture of a popular cartoon character shared the cake top with Nelson.
Ava says her favorite Nelson song is “On the Road Again,” and she shyly admits to liking Nelson’s ponytails and his guitar. Ava has a Willie Nelson doll that she carries with her wherever she goes, and she has a small guitar that she strums to Nelson’s songs.
In 2015, Ava’s parents bought tickets for a Willie Nelson concert in New Mexico and made plans for a family road trip. But a winter storm prevented Nelson’s bus from reaching the venue, and the concert was unfortunately canceled.
After the cancelation, Ava would continually remind her parents, “We need to go see Willie Nelson.”
When Make-A-Wish volunteers from the North Texas chapter met with Ava to find out what her one true wish might be, they quickly learned she wanted to meet and play guitar with Willie Nelson.
The Make-A-Wish team began work with Nelson, his tour team and concert promoters to schedule a meeting for Ava when Nelson played in nearby Lubbock. Ava’s wish would be granted the day before her sixth birthday.
On the day of her wish, Ava arrived at the concert venue with her guitar and several gifts for Nelson, including a birthday cake that had her photo next to Nelson’s. Ava met with Nelson before the show and they exchanged bandanas. Nelson autographed a copy of his new album for Ava, and he signed her guitar. Ava and Nelson talked, sang, snapped photos, and then it was time for Nelson to take the stage.
Ava, her parents and her older sister were escorted to their seats for Nelson’s performance, and Ava thoroughly enjoyed the show. She even jumped into the aisle to play her guitar during “On the Road Again.”
In a childhood filled with countless surgeries and beyond lengthy hospital stays, Willie Nelson and his music have created an escape for Ava, and her wish coming true will forever transform the journey.