When Gabby Horner-Shepherd was born doctors told her mother, Shannon Horner-Shepherd, that Gabby would not survive her first year of life. But Gabby defied doctors’ expectations and 21 years later she attended high school prom on the arm of not one but two dates.
“She loves being around people, she loves music, she loves to dance. She’s got this great mischievous sparkling personality,” Horner-Shepherd, 47, a steelworker from Port Dover, Canada, told TODAY Parents. “I want her life to mimic that of a typical developing young adult … Prom was that one place to do something special."
Gabby was born with Partial Trisomy 13 or Patau syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that doctors said was “incompatible with life.” It causes cognitive disability and physical problems, such as weak muscle tone and brain abnormalities. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 80 percent of children born with it do not survive the first month of their lives.
“Doctors said she probably would not live to see her first birthday,” Horner-Shepherd explained. “They said she would never know the world around her. She would be in a vegetative state.”
As a baby, Gabby cried constantly and always seemed to be in pain. Doctors told Horner-Shepherd to “just take Gabby home and love her until she dies,” but Horner-Shepherd wouldn’t accept that. She found a support group for families with children with Patau syndrome and saw that it wasn’t always a death sentence. As Gabby aged, Horner-Shepherd became a better advocate.
“I refused to accept no for an answer. I refused to accept that she was palliative,” Horner-Shepherd said. “I wanted to provide her with every opportunity I could provide her with.”
Gabby functions at about an 18-month-old level and cannot speak. Still, she managed to go through school in private classes with aides. When prom approached, Horner-Shepherd knew that her daughter would love to attend. But she wanted Gabby to have a date that wasn’t one of her friends.
“I wanted her to go to prom with someone who wanted to go to prom with her. Nobody wants to be that kid who goes to prom with their cousin because no one would be their date,” Horner-Shepherd explained.
Horner-Shepherd filmed a video asking for a date to take Gabby to prom on June 1. In it, mom explains what kind of date Gabby wants: “I need someone special who’s willing to take me because I have some special needs.” About 25 people responded but two men sent such touching messages, Horner-Shepherd couldn't say no to either of them.
“They genuinely saw Gabby for who she is,” Horner-Shepherd said.
Gabby’s first date, Jeremey Renton, knew of Gabby because he coaches sledge hockey for children with special needs, which Gabby also plays.
“There was no way I was going to let her not go to prom,” Renton, 30, a police constable with the Ontario Provincial Police, told TODAY Parents. “I know how important prom is … and I know she defeated the odds. I wanted to make sure I was part of that and make it possible.”
After Horner-Shepherd said yes to Renton she received another request that moved her. Zack Bowman, 21, missed his own prom because of a demanding hockey schedule.
“I didn’t see a female living with special needs. I saw a creative and beautiful woman who was looking for a prom date,” the Brock University political science and economics major told TODAY Parents.
Horner-Shepherd couldn’t believe it.
“I could tell by how he responded this wasn’t something he was doing because he felt sorry for her. He wanted her to have an amazing time,” she said.
On June 1, Bowman picked up Gabby and presented her with a corsage. Renton had to meet them at a nearby beach for photos because he was responding to a police call. After the traditional photos, they went to the dance.
“It was amazing,” Renton said. “We danced until we left. She was smiling. She was laughing, she didn’t get off the dance floor.”
Bowman agrees and said that meeting Gabby has inspired him to start a ball hockey fundraiser on August 24 in Niagara Falls, Canada, to help her and others living with special needs.
“Take a leap of faith or do a kind act,” he said. “I am really grateful to be a part of Gabby’s life.”