Mason Hardin is a college kid, living the good life that comes with the newly found freedom associated with being a freshman and away from home for the first time.
Say that again, Mason Hardin is a college kid. And if you know her, let that sink in.
Earlier this year, Mason’s elementary and middle school principal, Ann McDuffie of St. Luke, saw the social media images of her former students checking into their college dorms.
One of those students was Mason, whom McDuffie has known since she was a 4-year-old pre-K student.
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“It melted my heart, because I have watched just how far she has come,” McDuffie said.
You see, Mason wanted to go to college like any kid and live on her own, said her mother Becca Hardin, a longtime Columbus resident who is the top economic development executive in Bay County, Fla.
“Now, she is doing that,” Becca said.
The thing is Mason, who had most of her formal education at St. Luke and Calvary Christian, is not like most kids.
In our society, we put labels, and many times restrictions, on kids like Mason. She was diagnosed with Mosaic Down Syndrome, put another way only “some” of her cells have the third chromosome.
She is what would be termed highly functioning in the disability world. To me, she is kind of like the high school quarterback who is 2 inches too short and the big colleges won’t take a chance on that kid.
Mason is a special-needs version of the kid who just needs a chance. If you meet her on the street — after she hugs you and tells you she loves you — the first thing you will notice is she has Down Syndrome. That is her 2 inches too short.
What Mason is today, her condition aside, is a 19-year-old college kid playing in the big time. She is a member of the Clemson LIFE program, which is designed for students with intellectual disabilities who desire a post-secondary experience on a college campus.
And the program’s mission is clear: “Provide a coordinated course of study that includes career exploration and preparation along with self-awareness, discovery, and personal improvement through a framework of courses, job internships, and community participation.”
Look at Becca’s Facebook page and you have visual proof it is working for Mason.
“This has been phenomenal,” said Mason’s father, Jim, who owns Phenix Food Service Inc. “Two weeks ago, she was playing basketball with the Clemson basketball team. Last week, she spent half a day with the football team and Dabo. This weekend, they have a scrimmage against the baseball team. It is amazing.”
And the Clemson community has embraced this. There are more than 300 student volunteers who keep an eye on the Clemson LIFE students as they navigate campus. One recent photo shows Mason posing with Clemson football Coach Dabo Swinney, a man who is chasing the college football national title but still had enough time to hang out with the Clemson LIFE students and write a $40,000 check to the program.
Mason, herself is an athlete with the practice demands that come with being a member of the Clemson Tiger Sharks, a Special Olympics swim team.
The Clemson LIFE program is designed to assimilate special needs students into the college life and give them life skills that can help make them independent.
Mason’s older sister, Maclain, a Columbus High graduate, is a senior at Westminister Choir College in Princeton, N.J.
“I wish Mac had been taught some of these skills,” Becca said. “They are teaching them budgeting, how to apply for a job and how to deal with certain situations.”
In other words, it is doing what college should do, prepare someone for life.
The Clemson program is competitive and costs roughly what an out-of-state student would pay for tuition, room and board.
“She had to apply,” Becca said. “She had to fill out an application on her own; she had to write a letter; she had to get letters of recommendation. And then there were about 65 kids going for 10 spots.”
McDuffie, who had worked with the Hardins to craft a functional educational experience that worked for Mason, knows the family well. Though they did not know it at the time, a lot of what St. Luke was doing prepared Mason for the Clemson experience.
“There is a lot of satisfaction in this,” McDuffie said.
Mason was in regular classes through the fifth grade, then got one-on-one instruction in the academic courses during middle school. She went to Calvary Christian after finishing eighth grade at St. Luke.
“Mason gave as much to the kids and the staff at St. Luke as we gave to her,” McDuffie said.
But before Mason could experience college, Becca and Jim had to let go, which was not easy.
“Our biggest concern was safety,” Becca said. “First, Mason had never been on her own before. And I am in Florida, six and a half hours away. I had to be assured she would be taken care of.”
Mason lives in a dorm room with two roommates and a residence hall assistant. She has to get herself to classes and places on campus.
A few weeks ago, Jim and Becca went to Clemson for family weekend. They followed Mason on the 15-minute walk from her dorm to the football stadium.
“She knew exactly how to get there,” said Becca, a Troy State University graduate and former college basketball player. “She was taking shortcuts and cutting through buildings. And other students would see her, and say, ‘Hi, Mason. I just thought to myself, ‘She really is a college student.’”
For Jim, a University of Alabama graduate, it was tougher.
“From Day 1, we have never put boundaries on her,” Jim said. “We have treated her just like our oldest daughter. ... Mason has overachieved.”
Then Jim thought about what he had just said.
“You know, maybe she hasn’t overachieved,” he said. “Maybe I just underestimated what she could do.”
As Jim has watched this semester, his baby girl has grown in ways he never imagined.
“I guess I was limiting her,” he said.
Becca wants Mason to progress through the Clemson program the next four years. She has to be accepted each year, with the goal to have her living in an off-campus apartment the final two years.
Isn’t that the goal of every freshman? Last long enough to live off campus.
“I always thought when I retired to the beach, she was going to be my little fishing buddy,” Jim said. “But I can’t limit her to that now. She may be able to live on her own. She may be able to live in an apartment near us.”
So, for now they will travel to Clemson and visit Mason.
“For years I was always Becca’s husband,” Jim said. “But now when we go up there, I am Mason’s dad. And I am fine with that.”