Robert Lewis '16
The goal of the Heart to Heart program is to maximize the full academic and social potential of our students with Down syndrome by giving them one-on-one instruction and opportunities to participate in co-curricular activities atFRA. They are prepared to move to the next level of their educational journey with skills and experiences that will give. them the confidence to succeed in any endeavor.
You don’t have to be on campus long to see and feel how the Heart to Heart students are some of the most beloved members of our community. Former Heart to Heart teacher, Chris Price, sees the impact these students have on campus through their almost-celebrity status.
“When I worked in the Heart to Heart program, a lot of timesI said I felt like I was a bodyguard for a celebrity,” Price said. “Wherever they go, they bring happiness to people.”
After graduating from FRA, two of our first Heart to Heart students, Robert Lewis and Rob Funk, went on to programs similar to ours at Clemson University and VanderbiltUniversity. Both of them recently graduated from those universities in the spring.
While at Clemson, Robert learned how to follow a budget, manage his time, and live independently. He plans to move back to Clemson soon to continue working in the restaurant and hospitality industry while living in an apartment with three roommates he met during his freshman year. He worked various jobs while in college at Clemson OutdoorLab, Mr. Knickerbockers, and McAlister’s Deli. Currently employed at McAlister’s, Robert does everything from delivering food to customers’ tables, fulfilling takeout orders, refilling drinks, bussing tables, and even cleaning dishes in the dish pit before he was recently promoted to cashier. According to his mom, Judy, he has developed a following of customers who come in on the days he’s working.
“My favorite part is interacting with new people and getting to know them more,” Lewis said. “I also love to put the orders in and have fun with my customers. I just love the environment there.”
Robert started attending FRA when he was in the fifth grade. His teacher throughout middle school was Mandi Ashley, and in high school both he and Rob had David Dawson, our Heart to Heart director, as their teacher.
“Robert is a unique kid,” Dawson said. “He was somebody who absolutely loved FRA, and he, along with Rob Funk, helped set the stage for what Heart to Heart has now become. He has an infectious personality and was always engaged in his classes and with his peers. He absolutely loved being a part of the community in whatever way that meant.”
With David’s time being split between both Rob and Robert, this gave both of them opportunities to become more independent.
“Robert was driven to be independent,” Dawson said. “I remember when I helped him register to vote. It was one of the proudest days for both of us. I knew both Rob and Robert were going to be successful in college. Robert has had the unique opportunity to go to Clemson and live independently, which not all students with Down syndrome get the opportunity to do. He has absolutely thrived like I knew he would.”
Robert was someone who was always seen around campus. You don’t have to spend much time with him to get a sense of how he loves being around people and being part of a community. His positive, outgoing personality is magnetic.
“Robert is just an amazing human—take Down syndrome out of the picture,” Price said. “He is smart, caring, and responsible; he’s got all of the characteristics you would want in a friend.”
“Heart to Heart taught me about math and English, helped me with following a schedule, and Coach Dawson and Ms.Mandi taught me how to be prepared and organized in order to get to Clemson and follow my dreams there,” Lewis said.
While a student at FRA, he was a manager for the men’s basketball, soccer, and football teams. He even played soccer his senior year. His coaches all mentioned the energy and excitement he brought to each of these teams.
“His primary role on the soccer team was a manager, but he got on the field some too,” Price said. “He was an important part of the team. He would give a lot of pre-game speeches and get the guys fired up. He brought positive energy and enthusiasm to the program. He was always ready for a laugh, and he was never in a bad mood.”
Being a manager on any team can sometimes be a thankless job. It can be easy for a manager to get discouraged or beatdown by the constant routine of grunt work, but according to his coaches, Robert always had a fantastic attitude and was upbeat and encouraging to his teammates.
“He was willing to serve, he would look for stuff to do on the bench, and he wanted his friends who were on the court to be successful,” head basketball coach, John Pierce, said.“We won a big playoff game and on our way back throughJackson we stopped at Olive Garden, and I guess that became a thing,” Price remembered. “Whenever we were about to win a game, Robert would yell, ’We’re going to Olive Garden, baby!’”
During basketball senior night, the managers traditionally suit up and play if the score of the game allows it. Robert Lewis and Joshua Larkin were the two senior managers who had earned that moment by doing everything that was expected of them all four years of being with the team. For Robert, that night ended up being one that he—along with many members of the FRA community—will never forget.
When he found out that morning, after class with Coach Pierce, that he needed to get ready to put on a uniform that night, his day was made. Just knowing he’d get to wear the uniform—without realizing he might get a chance to play—thrilled Robert.
FRA was playing University School of Nashville—the school Robert’s two brothers attended. Late in the game, FRA was leading, and Coach Pierce put Robert in the game. USN’s head coach put in Robert’s brother, Matthew, to guard him.
With an arena full of people who know the Lewis family, it wasn’t long until fans on each side were chanting “Money Robert” each time Robert had possession of the ball.
“I’ve been playing basketball with my family my whole life,” Lewis said. “Every time I would take a shot, I would yell ‘money.’ In middle school, my brother and I came up with myInstagram name as moneyrobert32, and it just stuck.”
When Robert got in the game, the crowd was anticipating every shot, and his teammates worked hard to give him the ball every opportunity they could. Larkin, the other senior manager in the game, denied each of his chances at a shot by nodding to Robert instead.
"Joshua had been a manager for four years, and he was fantastic,” Pierce said. “He was a super smart guy who loved the team and loved being a part of the team. For him to completely give up any possible glory or spotlight to Robert was special. But that was all around a special team of guys who had zero ego. There was no one on the team who was looking out for themselves, and Robert and Joshua were primary examples of that.”
As Robert gets passed the ball, he takes a shot and misses it. He runs down to the other end of the court to play defense before his teammates regain possession of the ball. As they all race back, with a few seconds left in the game, Robert stands at the deep corner of the goal on the three-point line as he gets passed the ball again. He is perfectly in view of David Dawson, and his teammates lean so far out of their seats they might leapfrog over him. He shoots, and the ball goes straight in—barely swishing the net. His teammates explode off the bench.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I made it,’” Lewis said. “But when everyone was storming the court, I did not know it was going to be that big. Seeing how much FRA and USN cared about me made a huge impact in my life.”
A video that has nearly 467 thousand views on YouTube and is titled “The Most Amazing Basketball Senior Night” is one that Robert admittedly has watched over and over, and in his rough estimate, 85 times. That was the video Robert and I watched together via Zoom, but it surely isn’t the only one. Good MorningAmerica’s video has 1.7 million views, and a video from a local news station has 11 million views.
"If you know Robert, you want him to succeed," Pierce said. "I've been around basketball for a long time, and it is by far the greatest single event in a basketball game I have ever seen. Anytime you put a manager in, the crowd always wants them to score and do something great, but it was certainly heightened that night because it was Robert and because of the friendly, happy guy he is. For me, as a fan of Robert and a fan of the game of basketball, it was cool to see that night for him and our community. Not in my wildest dreams did I think it would godown like that. I knew if he got a few shots, he might make one, but you couldn’t anticipate that. It was unbelievable.”
The next day, on his birthday, Robert woke up to requests from local news channels, the Today show, and ESPN. Michael Strahan also referenced the video on “Live with Kelly and Michael.” Looking back on photos of that game, one shows Robert’s fellow seniors, wide-eyed and locked-in, as Robert jumps and releases the ball from his grip.
“From day one with the basketball team, he absolutely bought in and loved everything Coach Pierce did with that basketball program,” Dawson said. “He was happy and joyful to give his peers water and a towel and to be the hype man on the bench. That’s just what he did, and everybody saw that and saw how excited he was about it. They saw how much he loved all the people who were around him, and that was a great opportunity for all of them to give back to him.”
“I remember that day after class when Coach Pierce told me to get suited up and ready,” Lewis said. “I didn’t know he was going to play me, or that my brother and I would get to play at the same time. When I got in the game, I felt so honored to be in. I didn’t know that video would go viral, but I also kind of love that because it meant a lot for me and my team. I went to FRA, but I also have memories with my brothers' friends at USN, so I was happy they were chanting my name. That had never happened to me before during my basketball career.”
Robert’s highlights at FRA included his senior trip to Disney World with Rob Funk and Coach Dawson, field trips, being an Omega, his friends that he still sees and spends time with today, and most of all soccer, football, and basketball.
“Robert has maintained his personality from the time he started FRA until now,” Dawson said. “He is who he is, and he’s proud of who he is. I’m proud of that and seeing his excitement for living on his own is amazing. He’s shown how he’s excited to do his own budget, his laundry, chores around his apartment, and figuring out meals. I couldn’t be prouder to see how it’s all unfolded. Our goal as a program is to be able to prepare our students to live independently one day and maximize their potential. We want to empower them to be confident enough to do that.”
When Robert was growing up, his dad taught him and his brothers basketball, but Robert also swam and played baseball and flag football. The Lewis men always played basketball together at their house, so you could almost say he was preparing for that three-pointer his whole life.
“My dad taught me to love basketball,” Lewis said. “That’s a game I’ve always loved and that has always loved me. Dunking and three pointers...I go crazy over them.”
Robert’s love for basketball obviously didn’t end in high school. Throughout those four years, he expressed interest in managing a basketball team in college to both Coach Dawson and Coach Pierce.
“When he got a placement to be an intern in the student bookstore at Clemson, I watched that develop from a simple, task-oriented position to seeing him become a staple there,” Dawson said. “To hear about the interactions people had with him and the pride he had in his job, and then seeing that roll into him becoming a basketball manager for Clemson, was cool. I knew he would get to that level, but it’s just incredible to watch it unfold.”
Robert became a manager of Clemson University men’s basketball program and quickly became just as much of a beloved member there as he was at FRA. He traded in several of his FRA shirts for Clemson shirts. Not to say that he doesn’t own any FRA shirts anymore, because he will eagerly put one on when the occasion calls for it.
Robert’s senior night at Clemson was only a few months ago, and since then he has gotten to look back and reminisce on the friends he made.
"Nine or ten basketball players at Clemson sent me a congratulations video when I graduated, which meant a lot tome,” Lewis said. “Coach Brownell is the best college basketball coach ever. We beat North Carolina, we beat Duke, and I was there in the locker room dancing with the team.”
“FRA impacted my whole life, and I couldn’t do it without them,” Lewis said. “Ms. Mandi and Coach Dawson taught me how to work toward my future, and that’s how I graduated college because of those two. Going through classes and learning time management taught me how to be on top of classes in college.”
“I’m just so proud of him, and I’m not the least bit surprised,” Pierce said. “He’s truly a special person, and he’s a people magnet, so wherever he goes, people are going to love him. Robert is a team guy in all aspects of his life, so the sport of basketball...it makes sense that appeals to him the most because that’s who he is.”