In only a year since graduating from Sullivan Foundation partner school Clemson University, Lucy Graham has grown her own jewelry business, the Upside Down Collection, into a thriving online and increasingly in-person business.
The business doubles as an advocacy platform for people with intellectual disabilities—its mission is to share “the upside of Down syndrome”—much in the same way the University’s Clemson LIFE program sends a message to anyone who might doubt the abilities of its students.
A Clemson LIFE graduate, Lucy is proof-positive that those doubts are increasingly without merit. The Clemson LIFE program is a post-secondary education program for students with intellectual disabilities. It prioritizes job skills and independent living, and Lucy is one of the program’s many alumni with Down syndrome.
Lucy didn’t catapult to her current role alone. She was supported by her parents, Bob and Susan Graham of Columbia, S.C., as well as the entire Clemson LIFE staff, most notably Sarah McAlpine, an employment instructor in the program who has become a close friend to Lucy. After four years in the role, Sarah is aware that growth among her students changes depending on their learning style and their particular intellectual disability. But she said the support Lucy enjoyed from her family made unlocking Lucy’s potential much easier.
“Lucy’s family is incredible, and they’ve given her every opportunity—they gave her wings,” Sarah said. “But you can’t fly until you’re on your own, and I can say I got to see Lucy soar when she got to the Clemson LIFE program.”
Lucy finished the program as COVID-19 suspended in-person learning at Clemson in spring 2020, so she graduated a year later on April 24 along with the Clemson LIFE class of 2021. Bob said that, before joining Clemson LIFE, Lucy had benefitted from the curriculum for high school students with intellectual disabilities at Cardinal Newman School in Columbia. Much like the LIFE program, students at Cardinal Newman enjoy a simplified curriculum, and they are largely folded into the same activities as other students. At the time, Lucy was a cheerleader and manager on the basketball team.
Bob said Lucy and his family have enjoyed encouragement and support over the years from their friends and community. Bob said the true value in the LIFE program for Lucy was less about learning to fight negative stigma and more about the lessons that came from living and working independently.
Lucy has translated the skills she learned from the LIFE program into the Upside Down Collection. She not only designs and assembles the jewelry, but she also prepares, packages and ships most of the orders she puts together.
“The Upside Down Collection is important because it helps to show people I am more than my disability,” Lucy said. “My business gives me confidence that I can design and sell jewelry and be successful. It’s fun to model the jewelry and hang out with my friends.”
According to her dad, Lucy “is in control of her day, and she enjoys being able to make decisions on her own without me or her mom telling her what to do. We’re all kind of learning as we go with how to run a business like this. Honestly, the further down the road we get, the clearer it is that this is a real career path for her.”
The idea for the Upside Down Collection came from a conversation between Bob, Susan and Sarah about the best type of post-graduation position for Lucy. They knew her love for modeling jewelry was matched only by how much she enjoyed exercising her creative muscles. She could easily handle a job in a coffee shop or a gym, but they worried that those positions wouldn’t appeal to her creative side.
The jewelry business was an obvious solution, and the Graham family invited Sarah to join them as a business partner. When they first started getting the business off the ground, Sarah would begin individual pieces and Lucy would assemble the final half, but they have quickly started ordering material that Lucy can complete from beginning concept to finished product. Bob is continually impressed with how well the pieces sell, and he is the proud holder of one of Lucy’s first creative pieces.
“Lucy went to camps with girls without disabilities since she was six or seven years old, and I still have an ‘I Love Dad’ card she made for me back then,” Bob said. “That’s not for sale.”
As Lucy made her way through the Clemson LIFE program, Sarah enjoyed seeing her social skills develop quickly. Lucy took classes, joined a sorority, got into yoga, and became what Sarah calls a “top-tier” Clemson football fan who would put almost anything on hold to enjoy a game.
“The Clemson LIFE program was a great experience and has helped me with my disability and made me a successful person,” Lucy said. “I really enjoyed being in the LIFE program with my friends and making new friends there.”
Lucy enjoyed the life of a college student that so many people with intellectual disabilities would never normally experience, but Sarah’s job is to prepare students for what comes after. As an employment instructor for Clemson LIFE, Sarah plays a key role in helping students learn essential job skills while coordinating employment with 38 different employment and business partners, roughly half of which exist outside of the university.
Lucy worked during college at a location of the Your Pie pizza chain, one of many restaurants that partner with Clemson LIFE. With help from the program, Lucy excelled in the job just as she excelled at living independently with other students during the final half of her four years at Clemson. If self-employment with the Upside Down Collection wasn’t in the cards for her, Sarah is sure that Lucy would currently be some lucky business’s top employee.
It’s not just her creativity, according to Bob, but the “soft skills” that Lucy developed in Clemson LIFE that helps her sell what she creates. The trunk shows and in-person selling was abbreviated this past year due to COVID-19, but Lucy thrives on interacting with customers on social media and is eager to get back to in-person selling.
Lucy also enjoys giving back to and supporting the Down syndrome community. She and her family developed the Rainbow Collection of jewelry to benefit Ruby’s Rainbow, a nonprofit with a mission to grant scholarships to adults with Down syndrome who are seeking post-secondary education, enrichment or vocational classes. Additionally, the Upside Down Collection has featured bracelets developed in collaboration with Pals Programs, which creates inclusive camp experiences for individuals with or without Down syndrome.
Sarah said that every piece of jewelry that sells and every person Lucy meets is another mindset changed for the better.
“People with intellectual disabilities and their families are told too many times—and often by people who should know better—that they can’t do this or that,” Sarah said. “The Graham family wants people to see that Down syndrome doesn’t mean ‘can’t,’ and the Upside Down Collection sends that message loud and clear.”
This article has been edited and slightly expanded from the original version appearing on the Clemson University website.