Fifteen-year-old AJ Spader was preparing for his first high school dance. The most important thing on his mind, however, was the one special person he wanted to take with him. The winter formal would have been AJ’s prime moment to dance with a date from school, but he had other plans.
AJ lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with his mother Stephanie, father Tony and his four siblings. His grandmother and Stephanie’s mother, Sue Peters, also lives in the area.
AJ was in the ninth grade at O’Gorman High School. A Catholic school, its mission statement is “to form a community of faith and learning… through gospel values and academic excellence.” AJ certainly showed Catholic values when he put aside his own desires and chose his companion for the dance.
The school’s winter formal fell on Valentine’s Day last year. But what could have been a romantic evening, blossoming from AJ’s first dance, instead reflected a selfless act.
That’s because the high school student chose to take his sister Rebekah instead of a traditional date. And the reason why is heart-breaking. “I wanted to ask my sister because she’s most likely not going to be able to experience high school,” AJ told KSFY. “So I just thought why not ask her to formal.”
His younger sister Rebekah was born with a disorder called hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy (HSAN), a condition that impacts the body’s nervous system. Although it is not a curable illness it can be managed.
Aged six, Rebekah’s health sadly took a turn for the worse. The little girl was also diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of bone marrow disease. To treat it, she went through chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Sadly, though, neither proved to be successful.
Fearing all options had been exhausted, Rebekah’s parents decided to stop any further treatment. Instead they would make the most of the time they had left with her. To stay strong the family heeded their motto, “Unbroken, brave and blessed.”
In fact, it was this very saying that inspired the way AJ invited his sister to the dance. On a poster, he wrote, “I would be broken if you weren’t my sister because you taught me how to be brave and I’d be blessed if you went to formal with me.”
Rebekah’s parents were very proud of their son’s actions. Father Tony explained, “He’s thinking about his sister and she’s not going to get to go to the prom or the formal when she’s in high school because she’s probably not going to make it to high school. He just wanted to give her that memory.”
On the evening of the Valentine’s Day ball, the family put their all into making Rebekah’s experience a special one. At her grandmother Sue’s house, the women in the family set about turning her into a beautiful princess.
While her grandmother curled her hair, her 12-year-old sister attended to makeup duties. Soon Rebekah was all dressed up and ready to party in her midnight-blue dress, tiara and corsage. Not before her parents had snapped a few pics of her posing alongside AJ’s high school friends, though.
Before heading to the dance, AJ, his friends, and their dates had dinner with Rebekah. Dad Tony was overjoyed to watch her interact with the others over their pizza meal. “AJ and his friends embraced her and embraced the situation and didn’t blink twice that a little ten-year-old sister was going to hang out with them,” he said. “That for me was the most special thing.”
Anyone who knew the Spader family probably wouldn’t have been surprised by AJ’s actions. Their mother Stephanie told ABC News that the children “have a close relationship and he has a really big heart.”
AJ explained to KSFY that because he and Rebekah are close he wants to “spend as much time with her as possible while she’s still doing good.” He went on to say, “Her laugh is pretty great, it’s really fun to just be around her and just make memories.”
Of course, it wasn’t just AJ who was overjoyed to see Rebekah enjoying herself. Her parents were ecstatic, too. Tony explained, “It’s fun to watch her live part of life where the disease doesn’t creep in, where she is just excited to be going and doing something that every child and every teenager gets to do.”
He went on to say, “A lot of times there’s a joy-filled moment, but yet there’s a little sorrow because you know this is probably one of her last opportunities she’s going to have to do something like this.”
Meanwhile, mom Stephanie was also thrilled watching her daughter preparing for the dance. She said, “The only reason it’s happening is because of the inevitable with Rebekah, but it makes me have a really happy mom heart knowing that maybe we’ve done something right raising kids that put other people first.”
After all the excitement, Rebekah was actually too nervous to accompany her brother to the winter dance. However, AJ still went to the ball with his friends, and his father said that he is happy he went. Despite ducking out of the actual dance, AJ said, “It was so special to have her [with us], and my friends had a ball with her.”
Rebekah’s mom and dad weren’t actually surprised when she failed to make the formal. That’s because their daughter had spent time in the hospital a few days prior to the dance. But Tony made it clear that the experience was still a memorable one. “She sure enjoyed getting ready and had a blast at dinner,” he said.