Ten years after Clemson opened its doors to young adults with intellectual disabilities, the University and the community have come to embrace a program that equips students with skills to live more complete lives.

By Michael Staton
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98, Ashley Jones and Josh Wilson

As McIver Thomas ran in a 5K on the Clemson campus, a nagging voice kept pace with him. With every landmark he passed, it told him he shouldn’t be there.

During his time on Dorman High School’s track team, Thomas ran to get away from that voice. It reminded him, as it did during this 5K, of the constant social pressure. The feeling of not belonging. The uphill battles in class. The occasional cruel joke at his expense.

“I moved between public, private and home school; I struggled with academic and social skills,” Thomas says. “Track was my release. To be at Clemson was a whole other level. It was a shocker. It just didn’t seem real.”

For the better part of 22 years, he and his family operated under the assumption that the doors to a place like Clemson were closed to someone with an intellectual disability. Just a few years prior to this Race to the Rock benefit run for Clemson’s library, they were correct.

BUT IN 2011, Thomas was accepted into the ClemsonLIFE (Learning is for Everyone) program, a postsecondary education program for young adults with intellectual disabilities that teaches employment and independent living skills. Thomas’ realization of what the program was doing for him came into focus after the race when then-University President James Barker called him and his fellow LIFE students to the podium.

“We lost! Why were we being called?” Thomas says, laughing. His laugh is more of a bellow; he throws his head back and belts it out. “I didn’t understand it, but then we saw a whole community going out of its way to show love for kids with disabilities. I was overwhelmed. It taught me something I’ve taken with me ever since: I am a guy with different abilities, but I can also be valued and give something back.”

Now, more than five years since his graduation, Thomas is a success by anyone’s standards. He lives in his own apartment, holds a full-time job at an event rental company and serves as a member of the LIFE program’s advisory board. He’s witnessed the program grow firsthand and now helps steer it toward an even more successful future by providing his feedback.

That future, by all accounts, appears brighter than ever. This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the program, and over the course of a decade, it has evolved from an untested idea to a vital piece of the Clemson experience, with programs both academic and athletic in its orbit.

Clemson and the surrounding community have embraced the program. In its work to equip students with occupational, social and independence skills, the LIFE program has not only influenced its students’ careers and independence; it’s brought inclusion into public conversation and prompted people to see disabilities in a different light.

“It taught me something I’ve taken with me ever since: I am a guy with different abilities, but I can also be valued and give something back.”

A PROGRAM WITH A PURPOSE

THOMAS WASN’T THE ONLY PERSON frustrated by a lack of options after high school. More than 10 years ago, Donald Bailey Jr. told his father that despite his intellectual disability, he wanted to go to college just like everybody else. The elder Bailey, a financial planner and lifelong South Carolinian, couldn’t think of a good reason to tell his son it wasn’t possible.

“I told him he had the option to stay in high school until he was 21, and he didn’t see that as acceptable,” Bailey said. “That conversation lit a fire under me, so I started making some calls.”

Bailey quickly found programs based in the Northeast, and he became motivated to start something similar in his home state. With the guidance of national experts, Bailey teamed with other interested families to form a nonprofit devoted to expanding educational opportunities for young adults with intellectual disabilities.

He approached the state legislature for funding and later hosted 12 institutions in a symposium to discuss how these programs could work. That day, Bailey met Joe Ryan, then an assistant professor of special education at Clemson and later a founder of ClemsonLIFE. Bailey also received a phone call that day confirming the nonprofit would receive the money required to get five state programs, including ClemsonLIFE, off the ground.

Ryan was already familiar with intellectual disabilities, both personally and professionally. His older brother had an intellectual disability, and for years, Ryan had worked at both residential and day schools for students with disabilities.

He wanted to launch something to equip students with skills that would help them land a job and live independently. “Job skills and independent living” is Ryan’s credo. Other than students’ safety, everything else is secondary.

“Lack of preparation for the real world is a major deficit in the K-12 system for these students,” Ryan says. “Some schools and districts do better than others, but overall, it’s a glaring inconsistency across the country.”

Bailey’s son eventually attended the CarolinaLIFE program at the University of South Carolina, his alma mater, but he’s followed the progress of ClemsonLIFE and still actively engages with the program.
“To go from an unknown to one of the leading programs in the country in less than 10 years is unbelievable, and I say that as a Gamecock fan,” Bailey says. “It was all new, and nobody knew what to expect, but Joe was on board right from the get-go.”

DEFINING LIFE

RYAN WAS GIVEN FREE REIN to define what the LIFE program would be at Clemson when the program began in 2009. In addition to its emphasis on developing employment and independent living skills, ClemsonLIFE distinguishes itself from many other programs because its students live on campus among traditional students.

Ryan sees the residental component as an opportunity. He says the program manages risk by providing a greater level of support than any other program in the nation. Independent living assistants reside with LIFE students in University apartments to help them learn skills such as cooking and cleaning during the first two years of the program. Students in the third- and fourth-year advanced program move off campus into their own apartments. This program is designed for students who have demonstrated the ability to safely live independently, sustain employment and integrate socially.

In the advanced program, students work with transition specialists to ensure their success. These supports provide a high level of comfort to parents, many of whom live out of state. According to Courtney Dukes, a special education alumna of Clemson and a teacher in the LIFE program, the curriculum continuously evolves in the name of improvement.

“Every year, we review our curriculum, and if we believe a lesson doesn’t contribute to job skills or independent living, it’s gone,” Dukes says. “If it’s not a skill you need in your daily life, we replace it with something our students really need.”

LIFE’s success comes from quality instruction and training opportunities, coupled with support from the University and the local community. Nearly 500 traditional students volunteer with the program through Volunteers4LIFE, serving in capacities ranging from peer mentors to workout buddies. Volunteers4LIFE is now the second-largest student organization on campus.

Erica Walters, LIFE’s program coordinator for the past four years, has overseen the program’s most recent expansion; its enrollment has doubled under her leadership. She emphasizes the importance of the program’s job training, both on and off campus, paired with academics, which includes math, literacy, social skills, employment and self-advocacy.

“A key to our success has been establishing relationships with local businesses, community organizations and departments within the University,” Walters says. “We work hard to first get our student an internship or part-time position, and then that student’s performance opens the employer’s eyes to the added value they provide their business.”

ESTABLISHING A FOOTPRINT

THE ORIGINAL OBJECTIVE OF THE PROGRAM was to start small and then build upon successes. The full extent to which LIFE has expanded over 10 years might not be evident to students, parents and visitors until they get to campus. Those who come to the University’s football practice complex meet Marsden Miller working behind its front desk.

Miller is cool, easygoing, soft-spoken. He arrives and leaves quietly, his wheelchair gliding at high speed before stopping, abruptly but gracefully. When he takes visitors on tours of the facility, he opens up.

“I’m a huge football fan, and in this role, I get to go to practice and games,” Miller says. “I started the program and worked here the year we won the national championship; it was so awesome.”

Miller’s mother, LaMonica Miller, says doctors told her that because of his premature birth and spina bifida, he wouldn’t be able to function in a typical environment — and that he wouldn’t live past the age of 10. She’s learned to stop listening to expert advice and follow her son’s lead.

During high school, Miller directed his mother to the LIFE program after a Clemson football player told him about it. She told him he must have been confused.

“He pushed and pushed and pushed me to ask his teachers about it, and he was right,” she says. “We visited the campus after that, and it was all over for him. He was determined. For the rest of high school, LIFE was the goal.”

After Miller was accepted, LaMonica Miller said the transition was harder for her than it was for him. She worried. She kept repeating that if he needed to go home, he could. She feared that her son and the other students would be isolated. She realized this was far from the truth when he talked about his job and the friends he’d made across campus.

J.C. Chalk, a tight end for Clemson’s football team, met Miller at the football practice facility. They share a love of sports, dogs and the outdoors. Church is another shared interest, so Chalk and Miller began going together on Sundays.

“The first thing that comes to mind with Marsden is how confident and humble he is and just how positive he is,” Chalk says. “There are times when we’re driving around, and I’ll be complaining about a test, and he’s the one encouraging me and finding the positive side of things.”

The full extent of the football team’s involvement with LIFE wasn’t apparent to Chalk until head coach Dabo Swinney told the team they would spend some time with LIFE students after a practice and scrimmage.

Chalk remembers seeing uncertainty on some of the players’ faces. After the scrimmage, the players set up stations to do pass drills and hang out with them.

“I looked around and saw players having just as much fun as the LIFE students,” Chalk says. “Now the players look forward to these practices because they get to know people like Marsden on a personal level. We’re all students here at Clemson, and we’re developing relationships across years, not just at one practice.”

The tie between the LIFE program and Clemson Athletics started with a single internship but has developed into a powerful relationship. LIFE’s footprint within athletics has since grown to include 13 internships with the baseball, basketball, football, cheer, lacrosse, tennis, rowing and volleyball teams. In 2018, Clemson Athletics received the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Game Changers Award for its work with the LIFE program.

“We visited the campus … and it was all over for him. He was determined. For the rest of high school, LIFE was the goal.”

A LARGE ADDITION TO THE ANTONELLI FAMILY

THE ANTONELLI FAMILY lives and breathes sports. Deb Antonelli is a college basketball announcer and analyst for ESPN and CBS Sports. Her husband, Frank, works in sports management, and their three sons play a variety of sports.

When their second child, Frankie, was born with Down syndrome, activity seemed to stall for a period of months until Antonelli made a decision that in order to be the best mom she could be to a child with special needs, she would frame her approach through what she knew.

“I formed what I call Team Antonelli, and its purpose is to help Frankie succeed,” she says. “If I’m the head coach, then every teacher, administrator or therapist has a role on the team. If you provide resistance, I cut you from the team.”

The Antonellis were drawn to the LIFE program because of its focused curriculum and its strong ties to Clemson Athletics. However, the person who revealed the level of Clemson’s commitment to the program to Antonelli wasn’t a teacher, athlete or coach.

After her son was accepted to the program, Antonelli scoured Twitter for Clemson handles to follow, and she followed President James P. Clements along with several others. Why not follow Clemson’s president? In a way, he would be a big part of Team Antonelli.

“Not 15 minutes after I followed him, he messaged me and asked if I was Frankie’s mom,” she says. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? The president knows my son’s name, and Frankie isn’t on campus yet?’ We chatted over Twitter, and he told me he looked forward to meeting Frankie and our family on move-in day.”

She wasn’t expecting that kind of personal attention, let alone from Clemson’s president. When move-in day came, Clements and his family were there to greet them, schlepping bags and furniture to Frankie’s room. They took photos, of course, but Antonelli admits she was a little distracted. Her second born was as excited as she was nervous about leaving him. Team Antonelli’s head coach was getting emotional.

Antonelli says that day and the weeks before and after his move-in day were brutal, but it didn’t take long to see changes in her son. He has texted her with day-to-day issues that cause him frustration, but he tells her he wants to figure them out on his own to make her happy. More often than not, he reports success.

She sees the lessons designed to address skill deficits working. With each update, whether via text or ClemsonLIFE social post, the program continues to ease her fears.

“He’s loving the experience, and the pride that everyone at Clemson has in the program is a big part of that,” Antonelli says. “It’s reassuring knowing he’s safe and secure because of everyone on campus, from the students to the leadership at the top.”

CHANGING THE ODDS

MARSDEN MILLER is currently in LIFE’s advanced program and still works at the football complex. He catches the bus and shops for groceries on his own. Thanks to classes held with Clemson’s food, nutrition and packaging sciences department, he plans and cooks his own meals. Despite being below eye level with a pan on a regular cooktop, he whips up a mean spinach and bacon omelet.

Frankie Antonelli is in his second year in the program. When he isn’t working out at Clemson’s fitness center or interning with the basketball team, he’s learning how to budget money or using smartphone technology to aid him in completing tasks. Antonelli knows his speech can improve, and he says he’s got a good shot at a career in television like his mom.

“This is a TV face, so just go ahead and put me on camera,” he says.

The ClemsonLIFE curriculum and experiences are positioning Miller and Antonelli to enjoy the kind of success alumni such as McIver Thomas now enjoy. Joe Ryan is proud of the outcomes, but he doesn’t wax poetic about them; he lets statistics speak for the program.

A recent survey of LIFE graduates found that 96 percent had at least one paid employment position after graduation; the national average for adults with intellectual disabilities is between 14 and 34 percent. The remaining students had enrolled in continuing education programs. An impressive 44 percent of graduates now live independently, nearly three times the national average for adults with intellectual disabilities.

The program’s success has attracted the financial support required for it to expand. In fall 2018, ClemsonLIFE beat Ryan’s initial goal of expanding to 40 students by 2020. Now he wants to refine the program for the students who will go on to live independently and for those who can’t.

LIFE AFTER LIFE

LISA THOMAS, McIver Thomas’ mother, says she started viewing her son differently less than a month after he started the program. Her son says he worked hard to initiate conversations, speak more fluidly and maintain eye contact instead of looking away. He says that through the program, he consciously addressed his tendency to repeat a person’s statements back to them. Lisa noticed all of these changes during visits and calls home.

The mother and son now serve on the ClemsonLIFE advisory board together. They have provided insight into what it takes to move through the program successfully. He says it’s all about listening and being nice to the instructors and other students. She says it’s more about cultivating the drive to succeed in people such as her son that makes the difference.

Lisa Thomas says that drive has always been there in her son; he just needed extra attention to learn to tap into it. The fact that he was being allowed to do so felt as unreal to her as it did to him during that 5K run. She says it’s why she didn’t have the usual parental reaction when she dropped him off at Clemson nearly eight years ago.

“I didn’t cry,” she says. “The grief had come a few years earlier when this amazing guy graduated high school and didn’t have any opportunities. When we dropped him off, it wasn’t a dream come true because we never knew the dream existed.”

When McIver Thomas was invited to join the advisory board, he was “more than a little” surprised by the invitation, she says, but he said yes immediately.

“I guess I’m famous here now,” Thomas says, laughing. “When most people look at me, they probably don’t see fame, but [the board] sees a guy that has potential to help.”

Now he has to find time in his busy schedule to come to Clemson and sit around a table with what he calls “the very important people.” They are donors and representatives from the University. They are the architects of ClemsonLIFE.

When McIver Thomas’ name comes up during these meetings, it’s so they can get his thoughts on the next big thing on the program’s horizon, and they listen intently to what he has to say.

Michael Staton is communications and media manager for the College of Education and the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences.

4 replies
  1. Mikell Richards says:

    What a great article and a fantastic program. It makes me proud to know my alma mater is doing such great things with these wonderful people.

    Reply
    • Eric Lindskog says:

      Having a family member facing the same challenges, it brought tears to my eyes seeing the incredible impact of the ClemsonLIFE program on so many in such a short time! So proud to be a Tiger! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Patti says:

    Congratulation on 10 years of the best program. Giving these young people a chance to experience college life, make friends and to become productive citizens.

    Reply

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