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The inability to speak, walk, grip or hold anything makes the basic actions most of us take for granted effectively impossible for Crown Point's Sophia Burns.

And when the basics are off the table, life's extraordinary moments seem impossibly out of reach.

The teen, who celebrates her Sweet 16 next month, suffers from a severe form of Rett syndrome. The limitations of her version of the neurological disorder mean she can't attend high school, much less hope to get her driver's license, meet boys or be asked to prom.

But in a stroke of Cinderella-like magic conjured by the best parts of the human spirit, a special dance and an able-bodied Chesterton High School senior named Tommy Benson changed part of that earlier this month.

In an act of mutual magic, Sophia's infectious smile and ability to endure some of life's most unfair challenges provided 18-year-old Tommy with a gift as well.

It's a Region story of mutual giving we all ought to absorb.

Princess Sophia

Mimi Burke's countenance was very matter-of-fact recently when discussing with me all the things her daughter, Sophia, wasn't — and isn't — ever expected to do.

The severe form of Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder primarily in females, means Sophia relies on her family to push her in a wheelchair and assist her with nearly every essential action.

Born a normally functioning baby, Sophia's function began diminishing at the age of 1, and genetic testing didn't provide doctors and her family with a diagnosis until the age of 5.

In addition to its debilitating nature, Sophia's form of Rett syndrome also has meant she lives in a virtual bubble. A fragile, compromised immune system puts her at high risk for illnesses easily overcome by most of us but potentially deadly to her.

Burke acknowledges each day she gets with her daughter is a blessing. When first diagnosed, Sophia's family was told she likely wouldn't see her 6th birthday. Next month, she's slated to see her 16th.

"Every moment is something you thought you would never get," Burke said.

Over the years, Burke has watched with conflicted enthusiasm as nieces and nephews experience coveted teenage rites of passage.

Her son, Calan, 14, has every ability to experience these things as he gets older.

Sophia, 15, does not.

"It is bittersweet because you always want kids to experience that, but you know your daughter won't be able to do so many of those things," Burke said.

One of those seemingly unattainable dreams was to see her daughter treated like a princess via invitation to prom.

Then came a very special opportunity — and an even more precious gesture from a remarkable young man.

The dance

Last year, Burke said her family learned of a worldwide charity dance for special needs children intended to help teens like Sophia shine.

Each year, on the same day and time throughout the world, the Tim Tebow Foundation hosts the "Night to Shine," a series of proms for special needs children.

When Burke learned her daughter could attend the 2018 "Night to Shine" event at Dyer's Faith Church, she knew Sophia would be able to experience a semblance of teenage tradition.

"It's powerful when you think that this is the type of life event you thought she never would experience," Burke said, her matter-of-fact expression turning to tears. "She won't marry, there's no high school for her and no college in her future.

"Prom was thought to be lost too. This organized dance provided something she wouldn't otherwise get to do."

But the opportunity for a dance became even more poignant when a young man named Tommy Benson came knocking on their door.


Through social media posts and mutual friends, Tommy learned of a young girl named Sophia who had a ticket to the big dance — but no Prince Charming to affix the glass slipper.

Then he did something that defies all stereotypes of self-absorbed, suburban teenage boys by assuming the role of a caring and compassionate man.

"Her mom posted something on Facebook, and it looked like she needed a date," Tommy told me last week. "No girl should have to go to prom with her mom.

"I thought that one special night for her is the least I could do."

So the Chesterton varsity shortstop and pitcher drove to Crown Point, knocked on Sophia's door and placed a figurative glass slipper on her foot by asking her to the dance.

Burke's Facebook exploded with hundreds of likes, shares and endearing comments when she posted about her beaming daughter accepting the invitation.

"It was a very sweet and kind moment," Burke said. "Tommy brought flowers and a teddy bear. This is not what a normal high school boy does. He is so special."

Dressing up

From the moment Tommy asked Sophia to the dance, a whirring of logistical activities once out of the question for the girl commenced.

A friend gifted an elegant white prom dress with gold accents for the occasion.

Tommy bought flowers and a corsage for Sophia.

And on one of the snowiest nights of the year, Feb. 9, Burke helped her daughter with all the primping and makeup so important to — but so taken for granted by — high school girls preparing for prom.

The showering of attention continued when Tommy arrived to take Sophia to the dance.

"He was so patient and kind with her," Burke said, noting Tommy pulled up a chair to "dance" with the girl when the music played at the event. "He was so good to her."

At the dance, hundreds of Region special needs participants were crowned kings or queens — an endearing gesture for children who will spend their entire lives searching for ways to belong.

Many of the children arrived without companions and were paired up with partners by event organizers.

But thanks to a young man from Chesterton, Sophia arrived on the arm of her own prince.

Tommy remains filled with humility, despite a showering of praise he's heard from Sophia's family and countless social media observers regarding his actions.

"Everyone wants to talk about what I gave Sophia, but that's not really what we should be talking about," he told me last week, just days after the dance. "She gave me something, too. She makes me look at things completely differently."

Whether he'll admit it, Tommy projects a valuable two-part lesson of caring and humility.

We all should be taking note.

Local News Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 933-3327 or Follow him on Facebook at or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.


Local News Editor

Marc Chase is a veteran investigative reporter, columnist and editor of more than two decades. He currently leads The Times news staff as local news editor. He can be reached at 219-933-3327.