The Reece family had been through the unimaginable. Their patriarch, Luke, had passed away suddenly, at just 32 years of age. He left behind two daughters, Avery and Alivia, whose teacher came up with a heartwarming way to help them through their tough transition.
When Luke Reece married his wife Shelley, he became a stepdad to her three sons, Seth, Blake and Hunter. But according to Hunter, he was more like a father to them. “You didn’t care if I wasn’t your biological kid, you treated me like I was your own and thought of me as your own,” he wrote in a Facebook post about Luke.
Later on, Luke and Shelley would welcome two daughters of their own to the world – Avery and Alivia. With the Reece family now complete, Luke worked hard to support all seven members as the head of plant operations at Stonegate Health Campus in Lapeer, Michigan. According to his obituary, “He took everything upon himself and did it with a smile that you could never forget.”
In his spare time, Luke tinkered with cars and tended to his garden. But one of his life’s greatest joys was sharing his love of sports with his children. “He loved to golf and play baseball, especially if it meant with his kids – teaching them how to better themselves,” his obituary went on.
On top of that, “Luke never missed an activity involving his children,” the obituary said. So it was out of the ordinary when, at the start of the 2018 school year, Shelley attended open house at Gates Elementary without Luke by her side.
The dedicated father had good reason for not attending open house for his young daughters. Luke had gone to the hospital at the end of August because he “felt something just wasn’t right,” as Shelley explained in a Facebook post.
While Luke was in the hospital, doctors found blood clots within his lungs. So the day after attending open house alone, Shelley shared the news with Steve Culbert, a teacher at Gates Elementary who had previously taught both of her daughters. Just a few days later, Luke went into cardiac arrest and slipped into a coma.
The news hit home for Culbert. The teacher could relate to how Avery and Alivia were feeling, as he later told Yahoo. “I know what it’s like to hurt as a kid,” he said, revealing that his brother had passed away at 14 after a battle with cancer. Culbert was only 11 at the time.
So, while Luke fought for his life in the hospital, Culbert was making regular trips to the hospital to check on the girls. “I wasn’t necessarily trying to be a father figure,” he recalled to Yahoo, “just someone they knew that they could turn to.”
“They have a great family. Their dad was their everything,” Culbert went on. With the girls being so close to their father, his hospital stay was undoubtedly difficult for them to face. And especially so with an upcoming daddy-daughter dance scheduled for their hometown of Davison, Michigan.
Culbert had two daughters of his own, Aliyah and Hailey, and he planned take them to the event. But he told Good Morning America that, when he found out “the outlook wasn’t so good with [Luke],” he and his wife decided that the second-grade teacher needed to step up.
“My wife and I talked and she said, ‘You need to take [Avery and Alivia],’” Culbert explained. His own daughters were friends with the Reece girls, so it’d be a fun occasion for all of them. On the same day he planned to ask them to come along though, he found out that Luke would be removed from life support.
On September 19, 2018, Luke passed away after his sudden and severe illness. Eventually, Culbert did find the right moment to ask the Reeces if they’d like to attend the daddy-daughter dance with him. They both agreed to attend the event, which would happen less than one month after they lost their dad.
Perhaps it was that reason that Culbert and his wife decided to go all out prior to the big dance. First, they took all four girls for breakfast, before going on a trip to the park. Then, they hit the salon.
The Reece girls had to go home for part of the day, because their aunt was getting married. But when it was time for the Culberts to pick them up for the dance, they were in for a huge surprise. A limousine had pulled up to the site of the nuptials – and it was their ride to the dance.
“They were like, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re taking?’ It worked out perfectly. It was not to steal the thunder of the wedding, but to make these girls stars as well,” Culbert told Yahoo. With that, they headed off to the dance, each girl in a dress of her favorite hue.
Before they got to the party though, Culbert made sure to talk to the girls about their father. “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,’” he said.
In tribute to Luke, Culbert gave each girl a red balloon to release in his honor. Each one had a note attached that read, “#belikeluke,” – a hashtag used to inspire others to be an organ donor like the 32-year-old was. They sent them flying into the sky, with Culbert describing it as “a proud and emotional moment.”
The quintet then spent the rest of the night dancing, before capping it all of with ice-cream from McDonald’s. Shelley told Good Morning America that she was “forever grateful” that her daughters were able to go to the event, which Luke had very much looked forward to attending with them.
“Having Avery come home that evening and tell me Mr. Culbert brought her smile back was all a mother could ask for,” Shelley added. And Culbert, who hopes to start a college fund for the girls, said it meant a lot to him, too. He told Yahoo, “I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.”