SPARTANBURG — Like many soon-to-be college freshmen, Rion Holcombe and Megan Pehling can’t wait for next football season.
When the Clemson University Tigers take the field in Death Valley, there will be two new faces in the sea of orange and two new voices screaming cheers from the student section.
Holcombe and Pehling are looking forward to the simple revelry of college life because it represents a normal part of young adulthood they never thought they’d achieve.
“I was just crazy,” Holcombe said about receiving his acceptance letter. “I’ve been thinking about (going to Clemson) for forever.”
Pehling was excited to be accepted, but it was her mother, Penney Pehling, who was overwhelmed with emotion at the news.
“I think when I was reading her the letter, I got choked up a little bit,” Penney Pehling said. “I just never thought this opportunity would come.”
Holcombe, 20, has Down syndrome and Pehling, 20, has cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability. Both are fifth-year seniors at Spartanburg’s Dorman High School. The two have been friends since they met at a community pool when they were 9 years old. More than a decade later, they are set to start college together in the exclusive Clemson Life program.
Clemson Life is a two-year program that teaches independent living skills to young adults with a wide range of disabilities. The students live in a four-bedroom apartment on campus with a resident assistant in each unit. They learn about cleaning and cooking, and they take classes in personal finances, social skills, functional literacy and safety. They also receive job training and placement and individual and group counseling.
“We really focus on a functional curriculum,” said director Elizabeth Gorman. “For a lot of our students, this is their first time away from home.”
Only six to eight students are selected each year.
Megan Pehling said she is looking forward to learning to live with roommates, learning to cook, and learning about banking and money.
“The ideal is for her to live independently. There are things you just can’t learn at home,” Penney Pehling said.
Sending any child off to college is challenging, but with a child with special needs there’s even more anxiety, said the Holcombe and Pehling families.
“We were very excited for him, but it’s very difficult for us because we’ve always taken care of him,” said Danny Holcombe, Danny’s father.
Danny and Susan Holcombe both attended Clemson University, so their fears were slightly eased by knowing the campus well. Pehling said it seems like a safe environment. The learning opportunities and graduated program of responsibility and leadership convinced her it was the right decision for her daughter.
But the students said all they need to know is they are going together.
“Hopefully, we will stick together and help each other out if we need anything,” Pehling said.
Susan Holcombe said she is grateful to the Clemson Life program and five others like it in South Carolina for giving her son a chance for independence that she never expected he would have. When Rion was young, there were no programs like this available. There is no federal assistance available for funding. The Holcombes said they didn’t have a college fund for Rion, but they are dedicated to making it work.
“I want the maximum experience Rion can get in everything,” Susan Holcombe said. “I’m telling all the young parents (of children with disabilities), start saving now because you never know what will be available in 10 years.”