Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Wearing her heart on her sleeve

Vestaburg’s Ava Davis prepares to be ‘Ready for Life’ at Calvin University

Ava Davis, 18, will receive her certification of completion from Vestaburg High School on Sunday. She will attend Calvin University in Grand Rapids this fall via a non-profit program called Ready for Life, which provides opportunities for people with disabilities to grow, learn, achieve and experience everything life has to offer. — Submitted photo

RICHLAND TOWNSHIP — Ava Davis has a beautiful smile so big it fills the atmosphere around her — whether it’s in a classroom studying zoology, in a gym playing basketball or on a track running a dash or hurdles.

That famous smile is sure to be on display when Ava walks across the stage on Sunday to receive her certification of completion from Vestaburg High School. The 18-year-old has put her heart into her time at Vestaburg, overcoming a host of challenges to become the confident young woman she is today.

Ava will head off to Calvin University this fall as a freshman in the Grand Rapids school’s “Ready for Life” program, a non-profit housed at Calvin which provides opportunities for people with disabilities to grow, learn, achieve and experience everything life has to offer.

“It feels bittersweet to leave and to move on to the real world, but I’m always willing to try new things,” Ava said.

Ava’s mom, Angie Davis smiled at hearing this.

“She’s one of a kind,” Angie said of her oldest child.


Ava was born with a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, a rare birth defect that affects normal blood flow through the heart. She did not have a working pulmonary valve, so her blood was leaking back and would pump out deoxygenated blood which was then mixing.

Ava Davis was born with a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, a rare birth defect that affects normal blood flow through the heart. She underwent open heart surgery when she was three months old and received an experimental Melody transcatheter pulmonary valve when she was 10 years old, which is still working today as Ava is 18 years old. — Submitted photo

Ava was hooked up to oxygen monitors for the first few months of her life and then developed cyanosis — her skin turned blue. Casey and Angie Davis drove their daughter through an ice storm to Detroit for an emergency open-heart surgery when Ava was three months old. She developed respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) within days of returning home from surgery and had to go back into the hospital for another two weeks.

Even after the surgery, Ava’s valve was still not working properly. When she was 10 years old, she received a new experimental Melody transcatheter pulmonary valve, known as a “Melody valve,” which was only supposed to last for five years, but it’s still working today. Her cardiologist says she will need a replacement at some point in her life.

Possibly due to Ava’s heart issues, she has some cognitive difficulties as well.

The Davis family relocated from DeWitt to Vestaburg when Ava was in the seventh grade. Middle school is tough for most even on the best of days; Ava liked her old school and friends in DeWitt and struggled to acclimate to her new life. She began her time at Vestaburg by taking special education classes, which helped her from a textbook standpoint, but it also made her feel left out socially.

“I had a hard time making friends,” Ava said.

Angie was well aware of her daughter’s situation. As a preschool teacher for Vestaburg the last five years, Angie began advocating for her daughter to be able to take more general education classes at school — and she also encouraged Ava to advocate for herself as she became more a part of the general student population.

“Being in a special needs classroom was good for me, as I was around kids more like me and it was fun. It was good life skills,” Ava said. “But general ed classes made me feel better about myself. I was like the other kids after all. I wasn’t as different as I thought I was.”

Ava gradually became immersed in the world of high school — she especially enjoyed student events such as prom and homecoming. When she began taking high school classes, seniors took Ava under their wing and helped her find her way.

“That made me feel really good,” she said with a smile.


Ava now only takes a special ed class for math. Her favorite general ed class is zoology; she loves animals (the Davis family has a dozen or so pets, including cats, dogs, birds, chinchillas and a guinea pig).

Ava Davis is pictured on the Vestaburg High School basketball court with her parents, Casey and Angie Davis. — Submitted photo

Ava also discovered a passion for sports, starting on JV teams and moving up to varsity on the basketball team and the track team — she runs the 100-yard and 200-yard dash, the hurdles and throws shot put and discus. She thrived amid a supportive team atmosphere.

During a March 17, 2021, basketball game at Ashley, Ava played solid minutes in the fourth quarter. She put up a couple of shots and had the ball in her hands throughout her time on the floor. She launched a shot from about 10 feet between the elbow and baseline, it banked off the backboard with authority and rattled around the rim and through the net — contributing points to her team’s 42-26 win, as previously covered by the Daily News.

Matthew Koutz teaches sixth grade and is an assistant softball and football coach at Vestaburg. He coached Ava in basketball during her freshman, sophomore and junior years.

“Ava is a wonderful young lady,” Koutz said. “From the first time I met Ava, I knew she was going to be a special part of the basketball program. Though her skill level was below that of her teammates she showed up every day with a smile on her face and worked as hard or harder than everyone else. She was like a sponge soaking up all the things that our coaches would say and even when she had to be corrected, it was taken with a smile on her face and usually an ‘oh, OK,’ and she would do her best to fix it.”

Koutz stepped down as basketball coach after last season, but, “I still think of her as one of my girls,” he said. “She was always the most positive player in the gym and any time that she got in the game it brought out the best in her teammates as they encouraged her and always tried to get her the ball so she could score. In all my years of coaching, I don’t think I ever had a more positive and determined player as Ava.”

Ava Davis poses at the starting line on the Vestaburg High School track. — Submitted photo

Basketball head coach Andy Braman has worked with Ava all four years of her time in high school.

“When she first started, she struggled a little bit in doing what all the other kids did,” Braman said. “Over time, she did everything all the other girls did. Then when the freshmen came into school and saw what Ava did, they were inspired. She even inspired the girls in her own class.

“She’s always got a smile on her face, no matter what’s going on,” Braman said. “She motivates her teammates by always being positive and always having a smile on her face.”

“My teammates were really supportive and encouraged me,” Ava said. “The coaches never gave up on me, they were always there for me. I felt like I fit in.”

Ava even joined the high school band at the start of her senior year, despite her mother cautioning her not to as Ava had never played an instrument. However, band teacher Stephanie Smith told Angie that her daughter would be fine.

And she was.

Ava played percussion in her final band concert on Tuesday night.

“Ava joined Vestaburg’s band with no musical experience,” Smith said. “She worked hard to catch up on reading rhythm parts as a member of the percussion section. Ava has been a joy to work with. Her positive attitude and willingness to just go for it made her a special member of our program.”

“She wants to take guitar lessons next,” Angie said.


Tonya DeVerney, a social worker for Vestaburg, noted Ava’s participation in the school’s Peer-to-Peer Club and the Backpack Buddies program — both of which help students who struggle in certain areas.

Ava Davis holds her acceptance letter from Ready for Life, a program hosted by Calvin University in Grand Rapids. — Submitted photo

“Ava is always willing to do anything she is asked and carries a smile on her face,” DeVerney said. “Her personality is one of the many reasons people gravitate toward her and she has been able to make lasting connections with peers. Due to her sweet nature, Ava has also had to work hard at learning boundaries to prepare for adulthood. She is open to talking about her weaknesses as well, which actually is a strong attribute to have in preparing for the future.

“Ava will be greatly missed as she is a student everyone hopes to have,” DeVerney added. “Her strong desire to never give up certainly is going to allow her to conquer anything she sets her mind to.”

When Ava begins the next chapter of her life at Calvin, she will do so as a member of the Ready for Life program (rflnetwork.org) — an option the Davis family wasn’t even aware existed until Angie heard about the program from a friend.

The Ready for Life program believes there are 10 dimensions that must exist in order for a person to belong: They must be loved, present, invited, welcomed, known, accepted, supported, cared for, befriended and needed. The program strives to help each student have all 10 of these dimensions in place as they begin secondary education.

“What really won my husband and I over was that part of their core values include building a sense of belonging and inclusion for all students,” Angie said. “This is the piece that really stuck out for us. This is what Ava and all people — special needs or not — strive to have. This is also what we have felt was most lacking in her life. We are thrilled and hopeful that college will help fulfill this missing piece that all people deserve.”

Ava doesn’t have her driver’s license yet — that’s a goal one day —  but she will able to live on the university campus, play sports, learn life skills, complete an internship each semester and participate in all that university life has to offer with lots of support from the program’s staff along the way.

Ava Davis has enjoyed being on the track team at Vestaburg High School, including the shot put and discus events. — Submitted photo

As Ava prepares to graduate on Sunday, she says it feels “bittersweet” to think of leaving Vestaburg High School, along with her family — she’s the oldest of five siblings (two adopted), plus two foreign exchange students are living with the family (one from Brazil and one from Spain).

“In a way it’s been getting easier and in a way it’s been getting harder,” Ava observed of growing up (a sentiment which rings true for anyone at any age).

“We’re excited for the opportunity,” said Angie of Ava’s graduation and the Ready for Life program. “I think a lot of parents with special ed kids don’t know what the future will be like and that transition from high school, you have no idea what to expect.

“She comes to school with a smile and powers through each day,” Angie said of her daughter. “I’ve seen her growing in confidence and her ability to just manage her own stress or anxiety level if there’s something she needs to conquer or a change that needs to happen. She’s getting better at advocating for herself. She’ll ask questions when she needs to ask questions.

“Ava has always had this amazing ability to chase her dreams with no mind to what anyone else thinks,” Angie said. “She is completely confident to go and do anything on her own. I will always be in awe of that characteristic.”

Ava plans to study biology and perhaps become a zookeeper one day, or some type of job involving animals. But who knows? She also dreams of becoming a pop star.

The Class of 2023

This is the third in a series of stories profiling unique and inspiring high school graduates during graduation season in Ionia and Montcalm counties.

May 13: Central Montcalm High School senior Madison Mutschler

May 17: Belding High School senior Kaylee Jakeway

Today: Vestaburg High School senior Ava Davis

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