Teacher takes former students to daddy-daughter dance after they lose their father


A teacher took two of his former students to a daddy-daughter dance just weeks after their father passed away.

At the beginning of the school year, Steve Culbert, a teacher at Gates Elementary in Davison Township, Mich., spotted Shelley Reece attending an open house for her kids, Avery and Alivia, without her husband, Luke. The next day, Shelley informed the second-grade instructor that Luke had been taken to the hospital. Doctors had discovered blood clots in Luke’s lungs and legs due to a protein C deficiency, according to local news outlet MLive. Three days later, on Aug. 30, he suffered cardiac arrest and fell into a coma.

Steve Culbert heads to the dance with his two daughters and Avery and Alivia Reece. (Photo: Courtesy of Steve Culbert)

Culbert, who had previously taught both Avery and Alivia and had gotten to know the Reeces over the years, empathized with the family. “I know what it’s like to hurt as a kid,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle, because at age 11 he watched his 14-year-old brother battle and die from cancer. “Seeing my brother go through what he went through at that age — he was the strongest person I’ve ever known.”

Avery and Alivia Reece with their dad, Luke. (Photo: Courtesy of Steve Culbert)

So Culbert asked for Shelley’s permission to periodically drop in on the girls and spend time with them, as well as visit the family in the hospital. “I wasn’t necessarily trying to be a father figure, just someone they knew that they could turn to,” he says. “They have a great family. Their dad was their everything.”

Then Culbert decided to extend an invitation to Avery and Alivia to attend the school’s daddy-daughter dance with him and his own two daughters, Hailey and Aliyah, who were friends and classmates of the girls. Luke had attended the dance with his daughters four times in the past.

On the day Culbert was to deliver the invitation, he received a message that the Reece girls were going to be with their dad for the last time, as he was being taken off life support the next day. Luke, who loved to play baseball and was affectionately referred to as a “gymnastics dad,” died at age 32 on Sept. 19.

The girls standing in front of their surprise limo holding balloons in honor of Luke Reece. (Photo: Courtesy of Steve Culbert)

The invitation still went out to Avery and Alivia, though, for the dance on Saturday, Oct. 13 — less than a month after Luke’s passing. 

Culbert tells Yahoo Lifestyle that it was an all-day event that began with him and his wife picking the Reeces up at their home and taking them to breakfast and the park, then to hair appointments. The freshly coiffed and dressed girls then headed off to be part of their aunt’s wedding ceremony. Afterward, when Culbert went to pick Avery and Alivia up for the dance, he and his daughters had one more surprise.

“The girls were giggling [when we picked them up from the wedding] because I kept saying, ‘I’m tired of driving. You’re going to have to drive.’” Just then, a limousine drove around back to fetch the group, surprising the girls in front of their family. “They were like, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re taking?!’ It worked out perfectly,” he says, adding, “It was not to steal the thunder of the wedding, but to make these girls stars as well.”

From left: Aliyah Culbert, Hailey Culbert, Avery Reece, and Alivia Reece hamming it up at the dance. (Photo: Courtesy of Steve Culbert)

When we were on our way, I said, ‘I don’t expect you to treat me like your dad. I know he’s here with us,’” Culbert recalls. Then, right before they entered the dance, Culbert gave the girls red balloons to release in their father’s honor; on the balloons was the hashtag #belikeluke written in marker. “It was a proud and emotional moment.”

They then headed to Hanh Intermediate School, where they danced the night away, finishing the evening with ice cream at McDonald’s. “I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out,” Culbert says, noting that his daughters were also thrilled to help bring joy into the girls’ lives at that crucial time.

Shelley says she is grateful for Culbert’s consistent presence. “It’s just so good that someone outside of the home is looking out from them,” she told MLive. “I just want to thank Mr. Culbert and everybody for making sure the girls had a night to remember.”

Culbert says he doesn’t like being the center of attention, but that if his story going viral helps the girls in any way, that’s the best-case scenario. He also wants to make sure the focus stays on Luke, who was an organ donor. “Shelley keeps getting rewarded by Luke’s love,” he says. “Through his organ donations, he’s going to help up to 65 people.” Culbert says Luke inspired him to become an organ donor too, and he hopes Luke’s story will inspire others.

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