Gabby Horner-Shepherd wasn’t expected to live to see her first birthday.
She was born with the genetic disorder partial trisomy 13, and doctors said that if she did make it through her first year, she would likely fall into a vegetative state soon after. But 21 years later, Gabby is still here.
Because of her disability, Gabby has the motor skills and cognitive understanding of an 18-to-24-month-old, her mother said. Still, Gabby enjoys horseback riding, paddle boarding and zip-lining. And she’s a big fan of Ed Sheeran.
Gabby is in her final year of high school near the family’s home in Port Dover, Ontario. Her mother said she is part of a special education classroom, allowing her to attend the school until age 21.
Nearing the end of her high school career, Shannon Horner-Shepherd felt that there was one final rite of passage her daughter should experience: prom.
“She loves music, and she loves to dance, and she loves to be around people,” said Horner-Shepherd, a single mother of four who works in the shipping department of a steel factory. “What is the one thing that all graduating seniors do that can incorporate all those three things?”
So Horner-Shepherd posted a video to Facebook on May 25, asking if someone out there would be her daughter’s date at the Waterford District High School prom on June 1. Close friends of the family offered to take Gabby to the dance.
(Gabby also has a team of 11 professionals who support her during her waking hours.)
But Horner-Shepherd wanted someone close to Gabby’s age to want to take her — “not her 48-year-old mom’s friend,” she said. “[I] wanted [Gabby] to go out with a bang.”
In the video, Horner-Shepherd sits with her daughter and says, speaking on Gabby’s behalf: “I would really like to go to my senior year prom, but I need a date, and I need someone special who is willing to take me, because I have some special needs.” Gabby waves at the camera.
Because Gabby does not speak, her mother said understanding her daughter is “a bit of a guessing game, like it would be with an infant.” Gabby’s family and caregivers have learned to read her wants and needs by observing her emotions, like smiling (or not) and how aggressive she is to herself or others.
When it came to prom, Gabby was all smiles.
Horner-Shepherd said at least 20 suitors messaged in response to the Facebook video, which now has more than 35,000 views. Two of them were a great fit, and that’s how Gabby ended up with a pair of dates for the dance.
One of them was Zack Bowman, 21, a former Ontario Hockey League hockey player and student at Brock University in Ontario. He saw Horner-Shepherd’s video on his Facebook timeline after a friend of his shared it, and he immediately messaged Gabby’s mom, describing himself and asking permission to escort her.
Bowman never attended his own prom when he was in high school, he said in an interview with The Washington Post.
He also shared another reason he wanted to take Gabby to the dance: After drug addiction and a suicide attempt last June, he’d felt he had defied the odds, in his own way, just as Gabby had. He said rehab and his freshman year of college changed his life, and when he saw Horner-Shepherd’s Facebook post, he felt compelled to respond.
“It’s fate,” he said. “It’s got to be fate.”
He brought Gabby a corsage that matched her dress on the big night. He said the dance was “perfect from start to finish.” Though it was Bowman’s first time interacting with someone who was nonverbal, he said he saw Gabby smiling often, so he knew he was doing something right.
Gabby’s second escort to prom was Norfolk County Ontario Provincial Police constable Jeremy Renton, 30, who coaches Gabby’s sledge hockey team — which is hockey adapted for people with special needs.
Like Bowman, Renton saw Horner-Shepherd’s Facebook ask on his timeline and offered himself as a date right away.
“This may be one of the biggest evenings of her life,” he said.
Renton is also involved in Canada’s Special Olympics and other special-needs sports programs and initiatives.
“I feel very close to people with special needs,” he said, adding that they balance the stresses of his day job.
Renton brought flowers, and the group took photos by the beach.
Horner-Shepherd, who also went along to the prom, said Gabby and her dates “closed out the night” — they were the last ones on the dance floor. She said her eyes filled with tears “watching something that was just so normal.”
The story was covered by several local media outlets, prompting Horner-Shepherd to post them on her Facebook timeline, writing in Gabby’s voice, “What a lucky girl I was! I promise my story is not over!”
Bowman plans to continue his friendship with Gabby and her mother. In fact, he is throwing a Ball Hockey Tournament to raise money for the Horner-Shepherds to get Gabby a service dog, a constant companion her mother thinks will be helpful.
He said he wanted to do whatever he could to help the Horner-Shepherds, and keep a smile on Gabby’s face.
And that is exactly how Horner-Shepherd hoped things would turn out. On Facebook, she wrote: “My life’s mission since she came into this world 21 years ago has been to make sure that she is remembered by everyone she meets so that when the day comes that she’s no longer on this earth she has left an imprint on their souls.”