By Dana Delgado
It was something Ashley Combs could only dream about.
But when the Liberty Hill High School junior got home from school one day last month, she had the surprise of a lifetime.
A poster-size handwritten birthday card with personal notes and signed by all her friends and teachers, proclaimed startling birthday greetings: “Guess who gets to meet Reba (McEntire) at her concert on Friday? You do, Ashley! Happy, Happy, Happy Birthday!”
“I was thrilled,” Ashley said.
Her friends, including a core of students who graduated from LHHS last year, put together the surprise after a frantic social media blitz to honor their friend who has won them over with her infectious smile, genuine kindness and engaging, caring spirit.
Ashley, who doesn’t let some health issues and a learning disability hold her back, said she is not a genius but sincerely cares for people.
“I’m not the coolest kid, but people like me for who I am,” she said. “I still struggle with some things like math, but can do things when I really put my mind to it.”
Among her accomplishments, Ashley has won gold medals in the Special Olympics and has acted with her theater class.
The idea of having Ashley meet Reba McEntire came up last Christmas after a casual outing for pizza with her friends.
“Ashley’s love for Reba was not new to us,” said Allee Nix, a friend who graduated from Liberty Hill in 2016 and now attends Angelo State University. “She wears multiple Reba shirts to school and Reba comes up frequently in conversation. On the way home, Ashley casually mentioned, ‘Hey, what if Reba wanted to be my friend?’ We all commented and thought it would be cool but didn’t think much of it.”
It wasn’t very long after they dropped Ashley at home that the group asked themselves, “why not?”
“‘Reba has social media, maybe this could actually happen?’” Miss Nix asked the group. “From there, it kind of exploded.”
Their relentless efforts paid off with discounted tickets on the second row and meet and greet passes provided by Reba McEntire’s manager, only days before the concert.
“I think the best part of this whole journey was the way so many in the community reached out and supported our dream and helped in any way they could,” said Miss Nix.
With everything set and the surprise revealed, Ashley and her stepmother made their way to Houston Jan. 27, first to meet Reba and then to attend the concert.
“I was kind of shaking,” said Ashley. “I was not sure what I was going to say.”
What Ashley did say was that she could sing just like her. With that said, Reba responded that if anything happened at the concert, Ashley could fill in for her.
“We’re on our way to being best friends,” thought Ashley. “The concert was a big showstopper, a farewell gig where she sang many of her old songs and some of her new ones.”
Ashley has been captivated by McEntire’s songs since elementary school where she entered a talent show and sang her songs.
While meeting her Country Music Hall of Fame idol was a big experience, her true, heavenly bliss has been her social network.
“They love me for who I am and I love them for who they are,” Ashley said.
Once almost exclusively supported by her church friends, Ashley has expanded her circle of friends in high school.
“I thought I should start to hangout and eat with friends in my age group,” she said.
As a beacon of perpetual optimism and goodwill, Ashley has been enveloped by a unique circle of friends that is sharing in her love of life despite the fact that some of them have moved on to college.
“Ashley radiates joy in everything she does,” said Nix. “She is the person who makes your day just by walking down the halls of the school. As soon as she spots you, she runs with a huge smile on her face to excitedly hug you.”
Nix remembers when they first met three years ago through her younger brother Noah who is the same age as Ashley.
“For the longest time, I was Noah’s sister so she would always be like ‘Hey! Noah’s sister! How are you?” said Nix. “Eventually, I think she kept running into me enough that I became Allee, and Noah became Allee’s brother.”
By the next year, Ashley had a spot at the “seniors’ table” and ate lunch with them for the rest of the 2015-16 school year. But she hadn’t become just another person at the table, she was the life of the party.
“She always thanked us for letting her sit at our lunch table, but really, we should have been thanking her,” said Nix. “It didn’t matter how rough of a day you could be having, when you got to lunch with Ashley, her stories and jokes always turned it around.”
Nix recalls that Ashley even comforted her when she missed her mother who had passed away the year before.
“She just champions the people around her continually,” Nix said.
Besides sharing time and stories at lunch, Ashley and some of her new found senior friends, spent time with Special Olympics where she was competing and they were volunteering to help the athletes.
“We practiced with them weekly and would fight over Ashley as to who was going to get to partner with her,” said Nix.
The group surprised her at her last meet of the season last year where she won a gold medal. Last March, her lunch table friends got the whole cafeteria to sing “Happy Birthday” as she entered the lunchroom. Ashley was also invited to their graduation party where she promptly volunteered to be assistant DJ and party hostess. And early last summer, she was surprised with a group gathering in what was supposed to be only a movie date as many of her friends prepared to leave for college.
Since going off to college, the friendships have continued. There have been birthday celebrations along with other get-togethers.
“I think we all really enjoy surprising her because she has the best genuine reactions, and just glows with excitement; she is the best surprise receiver!” said Nix.
While Nix has been coordinating many of the group’s activities, many former and current students as well as the high school staff have been a part of Ashley’s circle of friends.
“It would be hard to name everyone because Ashley loves all,” said Nix. “She knows no differences in age, gender, and race; she befriends all.”
While the list could be exhaustive, some people that come to Nix’ mind are Coach Gretchen Peterson, Ms. Peacock, and Mrs. Havens. Some students would be Peyton Phifer, Carley Maples, Maddi Engelhaupt, Haylee Park, Megan Huppee, and Brooke Landry (seniors from last year).
She also is great friends with Lauren Brooks, someone who has invested time with her in Special Olympics and sits with Ashley at lunch this year.
“Ashley has taught me so much about enjoying every moment, both the good and the bad,” said Nix. “She has taught me that there’s no such thing as having too many friends and there’s no point in making enemies. I don’t think that word is even in her vocabulary. She has taught me the value of remembering important events and dates, always knows when something special is happening in someone’s life, and most importantly, she has taught me that it’s good to laugh, but it’s even better to laugh harder. That’s just one example of why it’s so easy to love her; with everything she does, she shows how much she loves you.”