Alex Starke of Wheaton, Illinois, 20, has Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that causes developmental disabilities.
Sarah Starke, his mother, describes Alex as "moderate-to-high-functioning".
He works and volunteers with Special Olympics and his local disability ministry. He requires near-constant care and guidance, and a solo trip was well beyond his (or her) comfort zone.
Alex is loving, kind, thoughtful - no matter who he meets, he changes their world with his smile," Sarah told TODAY
"But having special needs, his world is pretty small. We had traveled as a family and felt good about it, and earlier this summer I began talking with my brother about a visit," she added.
For Sarah, the excitement of planning a trip for her son to plane alone for the first time, to visit his uncle in Lakeland, Florida is worrying under any circumstances.
However, an encouraging experience on a Southwest flight did more than just a family reunion. It expanded this young man's outlook.
While Starke's Uncle David, a retired Army veteran whom Alex has adored since childhood, was elated at the scene of his nephew visiting, neither he nor Sarah knew what to expect in dealing with flight logistics.
Their worries were gone after their heart-felt experience with Southwest Airlines.
"It felt like I was taking him to the school bus, and my brother was picking him up at the other end," Sarah said of her experience with Southwest, where Alex took flight 2989 on the 4th of August.
"They let us go to the gate and hang out until he could board, and they walked him onto the plane. Everyone was so kind and patient. I could tell they were going to take extra care," she added.
Meanwhile Dave also shared his experience.
"I had never had to go and pick someone up from the gate before," he said.
"The attitudes, the communication between myself and my sister and Southwest - they made the whole thing very easy and enjoyable," Dave added.
Sarah feels that for Alex, the experience will have a huge impact. "At the time, he cared more about getting pop and eating his snacks," she said with a laugh. "But it stands out to me because it expanded his world. It gave him a sense of independence, and the fact that it went so smoothly makes it so that he won't be scared to think about doing other things in other places."
According to Melissa Ford, Southwest representative, "We love hearing about our customers' positive experiences on Southwest and were glad to learn about Alex's special trip to see his uncle,"
"We're proud of our employees and the incredible job they do taking care of families and accommodating those with special needs," said Melissa in an e-mail she sent to TODAY.
"Alex's world is looking bigger than ever. As a parent, you want certain things for your kid, but mostly you want your kid to change the world," Sarah told TODAY.
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