JIMTOWN — As a junior last year, Hannah Gaugler of Elkhart didn’t go to prom. She didn’t even want to, she said.
But this year, what her classmates gave her at the end-of-year celebration was much more than she had expected.
“The plan was just to go there and have fun and dance and hang out with friends there,” she said.
She had picked out the dress she wanted — a long, bright pink dress with silver beading on the top — and had spent the day of prom getting “prettied up,” according to her aunt, Michele Tierney. Gaugler and her date went with friends to downtown Elkhart to take photos along the RiverWalk before heading to the big event at Riverside Terrace in Mishawaka.
That evening, when Jimtown Principal Jeff Ziegler rose to announce who the students had voted for as that year’s prom queen and king, Gaugler was shocked to hear her name.
Students made two rows and raised their hands to create a bridge for Gaugler to walk through as she approached the platform, she said, where she stood with prom king Armando Gonzalez, both wearing their crowns.
“I was just so surprised that I won,” Gaugler said. “It was very exciting.”
What Gaugler didn’t know as prom approached was that two days before Jimtown’s prom, a few of her classmates had started a campaign to get her crowned as queen.
The gesture still brings tears to Tierney when she thinks about it.
Michele and Bob Tierney have cared for Gaugler since 2005.
Gaugler’s mother, Cindy Pacifico Gaugler, a Concord South Side Elementary teacher, died in a car crash in February 1994, when Hannah Gaugler was 4 months old. Gaugler was in the car with her mother during the crash and sustained a brain injury that still impacts her behavior. Gaugler’s father, Tierney’s brother, Mitch Gaugler, died in April 2005, and Hannah Gaugler came to stay with the Tierney family soon after. The transition into the Tierney’s family was difficult at times, but Michelle Tierney said that their two children, who are both teachers, one focusing in special education, and Jimtown’s teachers have been supportive and helpful.
Kelly McMillan, Cody Koebel and Caleb Hill have gone to school with Gaugler since elementary school.
“We knew we would be doing something for her like she does for us every day,” McMillan said. “I’ve never, ever seen her upset. She’s nice to everyone, filled with kindness.”
“No one else deserved it like she did,” McMillan continued. “If someone else would have won, they would have been excited for the night, maybe still a little pumped the next morning, but this is something Hannah will remember forever.”
Hill lives down the road from Gaugler.
“I know what she’s been through,” he said. “It might not be that important to some people, but it was pretty important to her.”
The three seniors used social media, including Twitter and Instagram, to spread the word among their peers to vote for Gaugler the night of prom.
They said everyone seemed to be on board and excited to let Gaugler know how much they’ve appreciated her in their class.
“We just thought it would be really special,” Koebel said. “I thought she deserved it a lot more than anyone else.”
While Gaugler was excited for the honor, others were affected too.
“It gave me chills,” Hill said about when Gaugler was crowned.
McMillan said she almost cried. “Everyone cheered and everyone was standing and screaming,” she said.
When taking photos before prom, McMillan had taken Tierney aside to make sure Gaugler was planning on staying the whole time at prom, and eventually explained what the students were hoping would happen.
“I was very excited for her,” Tierney said. “It was just so nice that these kids were so thoughtful ... to recognize her past. I just can’t thank Kelly and Caleb and Cody enough.”
Tierney said that Gaugler is on track to graduate with a regular diploma from Jimtown in just a couple weeks. Gaugler has been going through a vocational rehabilitation program through the state’s division of disability and rehabilitative services and may be a part of a program at ADEC, a local nonprofit organization that works with local people with disabilities, to find a job that suits her.