Halfway through a recent ballet recital, Alissa Sizemore, 8, decided to show friends and family in Vernal, Utah, exactly why she chose Colbie Caillat’s ballad Try – a song about feeling beautiful despite imperfections – for her first solo performance since a terrible accident changed her life last May.
While performing on a wooden bench in the middle of Vernal’s high school gymnasium, Alissa reached down and removed the prosthetic leg attached below her right knee. Beaming, she slid off the bench to finish her routine on the floor, artfully pointing her toes and moving gracefully with the support of her arms and left leg.
By the end of the three-minute performance, there were tears in the eyes of almost everyone in the audience. Alissa received a standing ovation.
“I just didn’t want to give up,” Alissa tells PEOPLE. “Dancing has been my favorite thing since I was 4. I don’t have part of my leg, but I can’t let that stop me. I still want to dance.”
A Life-Changing Accident
Alissa, who dreams of becoming a fashion designer, was playing outside with her sister Cyley, 10, and several friends on May 6, 2014, when she ran past a pair of garbage cans at the curb, just as a truck was rolling to a stop. The truck’s right front tire ran over her right foot, immediately severing it.
Alissa was rushed by plane from Vernal to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, where surgeons worked frantically to save her leg. Ultimately, they had to amputate it below the knee.
Alissa’s mother, Heather Sizemore, says she’ll never forget having to explain to her daughter why doctors simply couldn’t re-attach her foot so she could dance again.
“She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just give her back her foot,” Heather tells PEOPLE. “And then, to have half of her leg gone too, how do you explain that? It was very difficult. I still cry whenever I think of that conversation.”
Heather, 29, also had to make a dreaded phone call to Alissa’s father, Phillip Sizemore (the couple are divorced), who was working as an oil drilling consultant in North Dakota.
“I drove all night long, 15 hours straight, to the hospital,” recalls Phillip, 31, who returns to his home in Vernal every two weeks to be with Alissa, Cyley and their two siblings, Taylor, 15, and Braiden, 11.
‘She Never Gives Up’
Knowing how much Alissa enjoyed ballet and jazz dancing – Phillip even built a dance studio at home for her and her sisters – her father tells PEOPLE he knew his youngest child faced a “rough road” to recovery.
“But I also knew that she was very determined and never gives up,” he says. “She’s always been like that. I told her, ‘Whatever it takes, you’ll get through this. With or without your leg, you’re still the same person.’ ”
The small community of Vernal (pop: 10,344) rallied to raise funds for Alissa, since the family’s health insurance wouldn’t entirely cover the cost of surgeries and a prosthetic limb. The Sizemores were especially touched by the donation from Lily Wilson, 11, who auctioned off the prized pig she’d raised for her 4-H club. She raised $10,000 toward the cause.
“Such a terrible thing happened to Alissa,” Lily tells PEOPLE. “Selling my pig was the right thing to do.”
Until she was fitted with the prosthesis last September, Alissa relied on a wheelchair or crutches to get around. But even before she received her artificial leg, she was making plans to return to dancing. Shortly after leaving the hospital, she began secretly rehearsing simple dance moves in the studio at her dad’s house, determined to pursue her passion.
Last summer, when Heather Sizemore took Alissa and her sisters to Vernal’s Powerhouse Dance Studio for fall dance team placements, it was assumed that Alissa would help with the music until she felt comfortable enough to return to class.
Instead, “she handed me her crutches and said she was trying out,” Heather says. “She hopped to the middle of the room and gave it her all. She wasn’t going to let anybody hold her back.”
In September, nobody was surprised when Alissa announced that she wanted to start rehearsing for the February 2015 recital, using her new prosthetic leg.
‘Never Skipped a Beat’
“Alissa never gave up and never even skipped a beat,” says Taunia Wheeler, one of three teachers who helped Alissa develop a routine.
“She’s shown an incredible amount of courage, determination and motivation to be the same little girl she has always been.”
Still, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome.
“The way she gets dressed, the way she takes a bath, the way she gets up and down stairs – all of that changed overnight,” Heather says. “With the new leg, she wondered why she couldn’t wiggle her toes anymore. And she wondered about painting her toenails. She was worried she wouldn’t be able to be a part of our girl’s day, where I take the girls out to get manicures and pedicures.”
Heather solved that dilemma by taking Alissa straight to the nail salon for a pedicure – bright purple polish with tiny teddy bears painted on top.
“I want her to know that with or without her leg, she can do whatever she wants in life,” she says. “No matter what, she’s still Alissa.”
Ask Alissa, and she will tell you she has come a long way with the help and support of family, friends and teachers.
“It was real hard losing my leg, because I love music and dancing so much,” she says. “Everybody came together to get me dancing again. All of the teachers helped me and I knew there was no way I was going to give up. I love all of my teachers and I love that I can dance again.”