A couple of weeks ago, Susan Holcombe uploaded a video to YouTube that showed her son opening his college acceptance letter.
Now Holcombe’s son, 20-year-old Rion, who was born with Down syndrome, is a media sensation.
“I just thought my family and friends would see it,” said Mrs. Holcombe, who teaches third-graders in the gifted and talented program in Spartanburg District 7.
Try millions and millions.
Soldiers in Afghanistan have sent messages. Parents of children in Croatia with Down syndrome have said the video brought them hope. And many, many more have said they had no idea a program like Clemson University LIFE existed.
The two-year program started in 2009 is operated by a non-profit organization that doesn’t get funding from the university. Students with intellectual disabilities take classes in a variety of life skills, from peer interaction to banking.
“My heart is blessed,” Rion said.
Students live in an apartment on campus, one resident assistant to every three students. They also complete three internships at local businesses.
“I want to work at Firehouse Subs,” Rion said.
He said he’d also like to work with the football team.
Mrs. Holcombe and her husband, Danny, a CPA in Spartanburg, both attended Clemson. She transferred in from University of South Carolina Upstate and he transferred out to Wofford College, lured away with academic and athletic scholarships and the promise of more playing time on the baseball field.
They met at Wofford when she went to visit a friend in the dorm. Suffice it to say it wasn’t love at first sight. But a blind date a year and a half later convinced them otherwise.
She was still a student when they married. He moved to Clemson, passed the CPA exam. She earned a master’s degree. They traveled to Europe.
“There were certain things I knew I wouldn’t do if I had children,” Mrs. Holcombe said.
Six and a half years after they married, Rion was born. It was an easy pregnancy, easy delivery. It all seemed perfect, she said.
About an hour after Rion was born, the doctor told them Rion had Down syndrome.
“I felt so lucky, almost like the chosen one,” she said.
Her friends came to the hospital expecting to find a troubled mother. Instead, they found a happy, upbeat woman promising to be the best mother she possibly could.
She laughs when she remembers the class in school she had the most difficulty with was educating the exceptional child.
“It’s God’s sense of humor,” she said.
Immediately, the Holcombes formed the team they needed to ensure that Rion was everything he could be — occupational therapists, speech teachers, athletic coaches. They enrolled him in as many mainstream activities as he could handle. He took Kindermusik, which helped with speech and socialization.
He taught himself to swim by watching other children and mimicking their behavior. Now he’s an accomplished swimmer and graceful diver with many, many medals.
He played Upward basketball and Miracle League baseball. He has friends in special education and in regular classes.
Rion likes to go out to eat, go on dates, sing Karaoke. He went to prom and danced and danced.
“We keep him busy,” Mrs. Holcombe said.
One philosophy she and her husband have lived by is to treat Rion as they treat their 17-year-old daughter Molly.
“We talk to him like everyone else,” she said. “The most you can do for your child is let them do for themselves.”
That means chores, like rolling the trash bin to the street and hauling it up the steep driveway, cleaning his room.
Mrs. Holcombe said Rion likes structure. He wants to know what’s going to happen and doesn’t want to deviate from the schedule. When he’s excited he rocks or jumps up and down. He blows up when he’s mad but gets over it quickly.
And he has a lot of common sense, she said.
On Monday, the extended family got together to exchange Christmas presents and to eat at Cracker Barrel. That would be about 15 people, including his cousin Aimee Copeland, who about a year and a half ago lost a foot, a leg and most of both hands when a wound she suffered in a zip-lining accident became infected with flesh-eating bacteria.
A few days before the dinner, Rion went downstairs from his room and told his mother he was worried that Aimee’s service dog wouldn’t be allowed in the restaurant.
“You need to check,” he said.
He implored. Call the restaurant and ask. Labradoodle Belle would be most welcome, Mrs. Holcome was told.
“He thought ahead,” she said. “He loves to serve other people.”
All he wanted for Christmas this year was a Macy’s parade video.
Rion prepared for his Clemson application by attending an open house on campus, working with a reading teacher and an occupational therapist in addition to his studies at Dorman High School. He needed to learn to use an iPhone and worked on interviewing skills.
There were two interviews, lasting an hour in all.
Mrs. Holcombe said this was a test year. They didn’t expect him to be admitted on his first try.
Rion and his dad were at the beach when the letter arrived. She sneaked a peek.
When they got home, she handed him the letter and fired up her camera. He ripped the letter open and for several seconds just looked at it.
“What’s it say?” Danny Holcombe asked.
“I don’t know, Dad.”
Mrs. Holcombe said, “Daddy, why don’t you read it to him?”
“It says congratulations,” Mr. Holcombe said.
“I got accepted?”
The father read more out loud.
Rion smiled broadly at his mother and put his palm to his forehead.
“They said yes,” Rion said. Joyous. Overwhelmed.
Mrs. Holcombe said one message she hopes people take from the video is that more and more opportunities are opening up for special young people like Rion. More than 200 colleges have programs for young adults with intellectual disabilities.
The Holcombes never expected Rion to be able to go to college. There’s no college fund for him, but one way or another, they’ll find the estimated $30,000 a year to send him.
“The world has changed,” she said.
“I want to live on my own someday,” Rion said.