The Prom Must Go on

updated 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For three years, the 11th graders of Dora High in remote Dora, N.Mex., had scraped their pennies together from bake sales and fund-raisers for their prom. Then, suddenly, a prom didn't seem so important. Around midnight on Feb. 15, classmate Clayton Stokes was driving home after hanging out with friends when he dozed at the wheel. His truck flipped over, and Stokes, 16, an athlete and jokester, died instantly.

Tragic as it was, Stokes's death set off an avalanche of goodwill that has left residents of Dora (pop. 500) feeling pretty good about their town. The day after his death, Clayton's classmates piled into vans and drove to the Stokeses' home. There, they handed a $3,000 check—their entire prom fund—to his devastated parents, Jim, 48, and Cathi, 45, so they could bury their youngest boy. "We never thought twice about it," says Kassandra Clark, 16. The rest of the school chipped in, raising another $4,000. "They floored us," says Jim, a construction worker. "For them to love my boy so much to give up their prom," adds Cathi. "It didn't take the pain away, but it eased it."

That was only the beginning. Local radio host Steve Rooney and his cohost got wind of the gesture, and on the day Clayton was laid to rest, they asked listeners for donations so the kids could have their prom. "We couldn't answer the phones fast enough," he says. The juniors, who had held a sleepover at classmate Ashley Carter's house, tuned in while dressing for the memorial. "We had to redo our makeup," says Carter. "We all kept crying."

The money kept coming—$22,000 so far, some of it to create a scholarship fund in Clayton's name. And on April 24, Dora High will have a prom. What would Clayton think of it all? "He'd go, 'Dang, golly,' " says Travis Belcher, his best friend. "He wouldn't believe it, but he'd be pretty proud."

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