Steve Culbert didn’t always know he wanted to be a teacher. In fact, he tells Babble that he got into the profession rather late in life, after helping his two older daughters through their own schooling.
“I finally realized what I love to do and where I belong,” he says.
Now, his mission is to make sure his 4th-grade students always know that they belong, too.
“I tell all my students from Day 1 that they are family,” he says, “and that as a family, we trust each other, take care of each other, and love each other.”
But if Culbert’s students were ever in doubt of just how loved and supported they truly are by their teacher, they certainly aren’t now, after hearing what he did for two of his former students shortly after their father passed away.
On September 19, Avery, 7, and Alivia Reece, 8 — who had both previously been students of Culbert — lost their father Luke when he died of complications from a blood disorder. He was just 32 years old.
Culbert, who had gotten to know the girls’ parents at teacher conferences and school events, says he visited the hospital earlier in the month to bring the girls a small care basket he’d put together with fellow teachers. It was there that he learned Luke was likely not going to be coming home, and instantly started thinking of ways he could help.
His mind soon turned to the upcoming father-daughter dance the school was holding, and thoughts of how heartbroken the girls might feel if they couldn’t go.
“When I went home that night and was talking to my wife, we decided that I should ask them to join me and my daughters at the dance,” he tells Babble. “First, I asked my daughters about the girls joining us and [told them] what was going on, and they were more than eager to be part of making someone else feel good.”
And so, that’s just what they did.
“My wife made four fantastic, homemade invitations,” Culbert shares, explaining that two were for his own daughters, Aliyah, 6, and Hailey, 8. He made sure to give them theirs first, because he wanted to make sure they felt equally important.
The Michigan dad says he had originally planned on giving the Reece girls their invitations on September 17, when he was set to visit the hospital again. He’d even discussed it with their mother, Shelley.
“The plan was for me to give them their invitations in front of Luke and have him be with us and part of that,” he says. “However, that plan fell through … As it turned out, that was going to be a difficult night as the girls were likely visiting their dad for the last time.”
Culbert handed them their invitations two days later, on the 19th, while the girls were still in school. Sadly, that wound up being the very same day Luke passed away, though Culbert didn’t hear the news until later.
“The girls let me know at school the next day that they could go and that they were excited to go,” he says. And that’s when the real planning started.
“The entire day was about them and [had] to be a big deal,” says Culbert, who says he picked the girls up at home in the morning and took them to breakfast at a place of their choice, along with his wife and two daughters. While there, he says he started telling the girls that he was “tired of driving,” and had decided not to drive that night after all.
“I said that they were driving; one could steer, one could work the pedals, one could honk the horn, and the other could shout directions,” Culbert recalls. “They all were amused.”
Little did they know that he’d arranged for a stretch limo to come pick them up that evening.
Before long, it was time for the girls to get their hair and nails done — which revealed yet another surprise.
“The lady that runs the salon in the facility [where] Luke worked donated her space and time to do the girls’ hair and nails,” Culbert explains.
Once the girls were ready — and feeling “like princesses” — their former teacher dropped the girls back off at their house, where they were scheduled to be in their aunt’s backyard wedding. (Talk about a big day!)
When the wedding was finished, Culbert met the girls in the backyard, placed corsages on their wrists and posed for photos before heading to the front of the home. That’s when he reminded them that he wasn’t driving, and watched as their jaws dropped at the sight of the stretch limo waiting for them.
But that wasn’t the only special moment that took the girls by surprise. Before heading into the dance, Culbert handed the girls balloons to release into the sky. Each one held the hashtag #BeLikeLuke, which was meant to honor Luke’s great gift of being an organ donor. (Incredibly, he was able to help 65 people in need after his passing.)
“I wanted to give them the opportunity to show their dad love and respect,” says Culbert. “We talked about it in the car before we got to the dance. The idea was to send them up to Luke prior to going into the dance and to welcome him to be there with us.”
The 4th-grade teacher says it was a “powerful and emotional moment” he won’t soon forget.
“I was thankful to be part of that,” he shares.
The rest of the evening would be spent dancing the night away in the school gym, laughing up a storm, and eating ice cream at McDonalds, before the girls were dropped back off at home.
All in all, it was a pretty incredible evening for everyone involved.
Culbert says that part of what drove his small act of kindness is the fact that he knows a bit of what the girls are going through right now. He lost his brother to Ewing sarcoma (a rare type of cancer) when his brother was just 14 and Culbert was 11.
“I know what hurt feels like as a child and hate that any of my students have to endure this,” he shares. “When I first learned that their dad was in the hospital, I knew I wanted to be there for them as someone they could turn to to talk, listen to them, or just cry to. I have conversations with my students about never missing a chance or opportunity to tell family that you love them.”
When it came to pulling off the magic of the night, Culbert says he couldn’t have done it alone. After a Facebook post and some good old fashioned word-of-mouth, so much of that special night was able to go off without a hitch, thanks to the kindness of both friends and strangers.
In the end, that’s really at the heart of what makes this story so very touching: that there is kindness all around us, even the darkest of times, and sometimes even the smallest of gestures can have the greatest impact.