LOGAN, Utah — More than a year ago, Willa Mason was in her first-grade class when her teacher told the students about the annual Reflections contest.
The National PTA Reflections program provides thousands of students of all grades and abilities the chance to create original works of art in various categories, including literature, music composition, photography, visual arts, film production and dance choreography.
As the young member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints listened to the different categories, one word immediately grabbed Willa’s attention.
“Dance!” the now 7-year-old said with a big smile. “Because I love wheelchair dancing.”
Willa already knew she wanted to wheelchair dance to “The Other Side,” a song from her favorite movie, “The Greatest Showman.” Her friends also planned to enter. She could not have been more excited.
The little girl, confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, had no idea that the video she would soon create would later go on to win a national award.
Traumatic birth, prayers and miracles
Willa Mason’s story begins with her traumatic and premature birth on April 9, 2016.
The family was living in Claremont, California, at the time. Parents Patrick and Melissa Mason were visiting friends in Orange County when Melissa, 29 weeks pregnant, started to feel sick. She went to the hospital in Irvine and began hemorrhaging.
Delivered several weeks early, Willa only weighed two and half pounds at birth and was immediately moved to intensive care in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, her mother experienced a rare combination of different complications and continued hemorrhaging. She underwent surgery for many hours. She nearly died twice.
“I went through 28 units of blood, which shocks every medical professional when they hear that,” she said. “They let Patrick know there was nothing else they could do.”
Patrick Mason added, “It was like the moment from the movies where the doctor comes in an says, ‘We are doing everything we can, but we can’t stop the bleeding.’ It looked like we were losing her.”
Shortly before 4 a.m., Patrick Mason typed an email to family and friends. He provided an update on his wife and their new baby, then requested their faith and prayers. Somehow when he hit “send,” he felt strengthened and knew that his wife was in the Lord’s hands.
“I don’t know exactly how prayers are answered, but I felt in that moment the strength of prayers not yet uttered,” he said. “Then to hear that all these amazing people we have met all over the world — Muslim friends, Hindu friends, Jewish friends, Latter-day Saint friends, secular friends — all saying their own version of prayers on our behalf. That was special.”
The Masons’ Claremont 1st Ward of the La Verne California Stake held a special fast for the family. Ward members and other friends helped care for the couple’s three older children for the next several months while Melissa Mason slowly recovered and Willa grew.
“It was a community effort,” Melissa Mason said. “It took a while, then we got better.”
The family later moved to Utah when Patrick found new employment at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.
She ‘swallowed the sun’
They named the baby “Willa,” which they said means brave and strong. They added the middle name of “Hope,” for its role in helping them survive one of the scariest experiences of their lives.
Because of the traumatic birth, doctors told the couple their daughter might experience some developmental delays. So they weren’t overly worried when Willa didn’t roll or crawl when infants normally do those things.
Eventually, they went in for further testing and doctors found brain trauma, which resulted in a diagnosis of cerebral palsy.
While Willa’s condition has presented some challenges and different experiences, the Mason family would not be the same without her joyful, beaming and playful personality. The Masons said a nurse once summarized Willa this way: “It’s like she swallowed the sun.”
“Sunshine is something that people always associate with her,” Melissa Mason said.
The small girl with red hair loves sitting at a customized desk to read, color and work with beads. She likes pounding on bongo drums and strumming the ukulele. When possible she ventures outside to throw the frisbee or play adaptive sports.
“I’m not that good at it, but I’m sort of good at it,” Willa explained.
Willa is an artist. Her family treasures a finger-painting portrait she created. It sits in a frame above the fireplace in the living room.
Having Willa has blessed the family in many ways. The family has gained new perspective on how to treat others who are different and learned to be more caring and compassionate, the parents said.
“Willa was the glue that bonded our family together,” Melissa Mason said. “She has helped us all to kind of be our best selves.”
Her siblings — brothers Finn, 15, and Rhett, 13, and sister, Lucy, 13 — say Willa is smart and determined, full of “spirit and willpower.”
“She doesn’t let the wheelchair get her down,” Finn Mason said. “The way she sees it, she is just as capable as anyone else.”
Melissa Mason doesn’t remember exactly when it was, maybe two years ago, but the family was watching the musical “Hamilton” on television.
During one of the songs, Willa started moving her wheelchair around to the music.
“I felt something. The music just caught me, and I started dancing,” the little girl said. “I was like, ‘I want to dance, but I’m in a wheelchair. OK, I’ll dance with my wheelchair.’ I started dancing, and I was like, ‘I love this.’”
Her mother said she continued wheelchair dancing for the rest of the show.
Rolling with rhythm to “Hamilton” was how Mason got her start as a wheelchair dancer, and it prepared her to enter the Reflections contest.
The Reflections contest
Patrick Mason, an author and university professor, filmed his daughter’s wheelchair dance in a parking lot with a cell phone. The video shows Willa dressed in a bright pink shirt and black pants, wheeling her purple wheelchair around to the music, twisting and turning with flashing lights in her small front wheels. Viewers know she is having fun thanks to a wide smile on her face.
In her artistic statement, Willa wrote: “I definitely showed my voice. I love wheelchair dancing, and I’ve been doing it since I was 4. I love to move with the music and use my wheels to dance. I picked this song because it’s very different, and I wanted to try something hard. Plus, it’s from one of my favorite movies about being who you are (“The Greatest Showman”).”
To the surprise and delight of all, Willa not only won at her school, Edith Bowen Laboratory School at Utah State, but she also won at the district, state and national levels, where she received an award of excellence.
Willa was informed that no one in her school had ever reached the state level of the contest, let alone nationals. Her school played part of her video during an assembly on the last day of school. When it was over, she received a spontaneous standing ovation.
“The person handing me the certificate said ‘turn around,’ and then I saw everyone standing and clapping and cheering,” Willa said. “A lady asked me if I would enter Reflections next year, and I was like, ‘Yeah, definitely!’”
The Mason family poses for a photo in their yard in Logan, Utah, on Wednesday, July 12, 2023. The youngest daughter, Willa Mason, is a 7-year-old with cerebral palsy who won a Reflections Award of Excellence at the national level for choreographing a wheelchair dance.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Patrick Mason carries his daughter, Willa, a 7-year-old with cerebral palsy, at home in Logan, Utah, on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Willa Mason, a 7-year-old with cerebral palsy, works on some of her artwork at home with her family in Logan, Utah, on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Look for a person’s gifts and talents
Those who spend time with Willa Mason always come away happy and uplifted.
“She brings sunshine into the world,” her mother said.
The Masons hope readers will appreciate that each person has unique gifts and talents to make the world a more colorful and beautiful place.
“Look beyond what you initially see in a person and realize they have been given gifts,” Melissa Mason said. “‘All are alike unto God’ — that’s an important principle in our family and something we would like to see more of in the world.”