STERLING – Tyler Johnson and Gaby DeLaFuente might have never gone to the senior prom tonight if a friend had not asked them to the dance.
Tyler and Gaby, both 18, have special needs and so might never have experienced the rite of passage, the milestone, that is the high school prom.
Alax Browning, then a sophomore, went to prom last year. She got dressed up, posed for pictures, and danced the night away. She wanted do it again her junior year and her senior year.
Alax, 17, a junior at Sterling High School, also wanted that special night of glitz and glamour for her friends, so she asked them to be her dates to the dance tonight.
"I think about prom, and I think about the dresses and the tuxes and the excitement," she said. "I wanted them to have that experience, too."
Alax, who had the idea almost a year ago to ask her special needs friends to the prom, kept her plan quiet.
She told her mother, of course, and a only a few close friends.
"I was immensely proud of her, that she could go with anybody, but she wanted to go with them," her mother, Teresa Moser, said. "That's just Alax, though. That's just her heart."
And Alax discussed it with her friends' mothers.
"I was so excited someone thought enough of him ... to do this for him," said Tyler's mother, Ann Walters.
"I didn't know there would be a student out there who would want to do that for our children," Gaby's mother, Cindy DeLaFuente, said. "You hear other stories, but you don't think it would ever happen here."
In early April, Alax asked Tyler, who has Down syndrome, during his science class. She presented him with flowers, balloons and a poster that read, "Tyler: Prom?"
Tyler put his hands over his mouth in shock and, after a pause, replied, "Yes!"
Then, a week later, Alax asked Gaby, who is developmentally delayed, at McDonald's (where Alax works and where Gaby socializes). Alax gave her flowers, candy and a poster.
Gabby smiled and simply said, "Yes!"
Word, photos and video of her gesture went viral in the community. Friends and strangers alike offered their support. Some people even wanted to pitch in to make the night extra special for the trio.
Whiteside County State's Attorney Trish Joyce donated a limousine to escort the group around town.
Photography by Heather Lanell donated photos. An anonymous family donated dinner at the Basil Tree in Dixon. Avonlea Cottage donated corsages and a boutonniere.
"We cried," Moser said. "[Alax] said to me, 'Mom, I never wanted any of this,' but I said to her, 'For as often as you give, you can accept it.'"
Tyler and Gaby are excited about tonight.
Tyler, a junior at Sterling High School, long has dreamed of going to the prom, so he has told anyone who will listen that he is going to the dance, Walters said.
Gaby, a senior, on the other hand, has not said much, except that she will be "a princess" in a pink dress who gets to "party with [her] friends" for the night, her mother said.
Their parents, understandably, are emotional.
"It's just something we never thought would happen," DeLaFuente said, choking back a few tears.
"These kids deserve to be there. It's still part of their schooling," Walters said. "The other kids are looking forward to prom, and our kids look forward to it, too."
As for Alax, she is excited, too, but not as much about her red dress, or the pictures, or the dance, as about the chance to help her friends have the night of a lifetime.
"A few people have said it's nice that I'm giving up my prom for them," she said. "But I don't feel like I'm giving up my prom. It's as much their prom as it is mine.
"They're probably going to have more fun anyway. ..."