In early December, Susan Holcombe took a video of her son, Rion, as he learned he had been accepted to ClemsonLIFE, a program at Clemson that provides a college experience to young adults with special needs.

Susan posted the video on Facebook so their friends and family could see Rion’s joy upon hearing the good news — but the news reached a few more people.

A few million more people.

The video made its way to such social media sites such as BuzzFeed and Reddit, and a viral video was born. To date, the video has received more than 1.75 million views, and news stories about it and Rion have appeared on Headline News, CNN, Today, the Huffington Post in USA Today and in countless other media outlets in the U.S. and around the world.

Rion was also named as the 2014 Orange Bowl’s Ultimate Fan, earning him and his family a trip to Miami for the game. The Clemson football team invited Rion to be its VIP guest and led the Tigers in their group huddle, and he and his family met Coach Dabo Swinney, President Jim Clements, and many players, including quarterback Tajh Boyd.

Rion Holcombe's priceless reaction to being accepted in ClemsonLIFE has inspired people around the world.

Rion Holcombe’s reaction to being accepted into the ClemsonLIFE program has inspired people around the world.

Coach Swinney said the team was moved by his video, and they are not alone.

“He really has inspired a lot of people,” Susan Holcombe said in an interview, adding, “We’ve heard from people all over the world who didn’t know programs like this existed.”

A 20-year-old from Moore, S.C., with Down syndrome, Rion will be among the six to eight students entering the ClemsonLIFE program in August. The two-year program, capped at around 15 students, teaches independent living along with practical academics and social, leisure and job skills so that they graduate as self-sufficient young adults

“We really focus on a functional curriculum,” director Elizabeth Gorman told the Spartanburg Herald Journal. “For a lot of our students, this is their first time away from home.”

Students also receive a certificate of post-secondary education upon completion of the program, which is funded solely by tuition and private donations.

The Holcombe family with Clemson President Jim Clements and Coach Dabo Swinney at the Orange Bowl.

The Holcombe family with Clemson President Jim Clements and Coach Dabo Swinney at the Orange Bowl.
Image Credit: Clemson University

The students take specialized classes, work in on- and off-campus jobs and live in apartments on campus under the supervision of resident assistants. More than 100 Clemson students volunteer in the program, serving as tutors and “buddies” for meals and activities.

The ClemsonLIFE program started in 2009 under the direction of founder Joe Ryan, associate professor at Clemson’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education. Housed within the school, the program has grown to four full-time staff and six part-time staff, and is one of five such programs in South Carolina.

“This program is an important step in addressing a critical need across both South Carolina and the United States in helping young adults with disabilities transition successfully from high school to the work force,” Ryan said.

Ryan is very happy to see Rion’s video become so popular. In an interview with Headline News, he said he hopes the ClemsonLIFE program can open the door for many people in the future.

“Many people tend to focus on what individuals with disabilities can’t do,” Ryan says. “We like to focus on teaching them what they can do.”