Feleceia Benton: Lighting the Runway for Models with Down Syndrome
Zoe Benton is nine years old. Like many children her age, she loves to sing, dance, laugh and play. Zoe adores getting her hair done and experimenting with makeup. She enjoys shopping for accessories with her mom, Feleceia, and she loves playing dress-up. Zoe is passionate about life and she’s an inspiration to everyone around her. Zoe also has Down syndrome.
Feleceia’s voice brightens as she talks about her daughter. “Zoe is so free,” she said. “She is the most free human I have ever met in my entire life. She just owns how she was created and who she is. She inspires me to be free. She is so happy, and great things come to her as a result.”
Feleceia goes on to explain how her daughter served as the genesis for her to branch out on her own as an entrepreneur. “Zoe creates a lot of motivation for much of what I do,” Feleceia said, speaking specifically in regards to the communications agency she launched in 2012 that is named after her daughter. The tagline for Zoe Communications Agency sums up the organization perfectly: “We build brands that build meaning. And we use a cute little girl named Zoe for motivation.”
Zoe Communications Agency works primarily with organizations that are community-centric, like chambers of commerce and public schools. Feleceia attended Texas Christian University, where she got degrees in advertising and theater. Now she working toward her Master’s degree in Public Leadership from UNT Dallas. In addition to her daily life as a full-time entrepreneur, Feleceia participates in professional theater, speaking engagements, and podcasting opportunities, as well as teaching several classes each week at Zoe’s school, Turning Point Christian Academy.
As if her proverbial plate wasn’t full enough, there’s one more project that Feleceia has to manage, again inspired by Zoe: in 2013, Feleceia launched Think Out, Be Light, a fashion show for children and young adults with special needs. Each year on March 21st, which is World Down syndrome Day, volunteer stylists, makeup artists, and hair experts donate their time and services to work with the event participants, all of whom get to don new clothes in the latest fashions as they strut their stuff down the catwalk.
Feleceia recounts an instance from church when she observed an older mother raising her young adult daughter who had Down syndrome. “I got to thinking about how the mother was feeling—happy, certainly, but exhausted, probably,” Feleceia said. “At the time, Zoe was very young, and it made me question: what does it feel like to raise an older child with special needs? How do you influence them to care for themselves?”
Feleceia started dreaming about what it would be like to host a fashion show for children and young adults with special needs to, in her lovely words, “make them feel as beautiful as they are.” As fate would have it, Feleceia randomly bumped into a group of young adults with special needs, led by a teacher, who were shopping in Target. They were practicing life skills, like shopping for groceries and home supplies.
“I walked over to this lady and I said, ‘This is the strangest question, but I am interested in hosting a fashion show for young adults and children with special needs. Has that idea ever crossed your mind before?’” Feleceia recalls. The teacher was immediately enthused, and she responded that she, too, had been in discussion about the very same idea with other faculty at the Notre Dame School, where she worked. The school serves students with developmental disabilities between the ages of 8 and 23 years old. The group of young adults shopping at Target with her was part of her vocational training cohort, and the teacher thought they would be the perfect candidates to participate in such a fashion show.
Feleceia admits that she knew nothing about fashion shows, but she was so excited at the possibility of hosting the event that she dove into the planning process headfirst. After identifying a venue for the event, Feleceia started recruiting volunteers who were experts in the beauty world. She knew she would need their help preparing the models for the runway.
“We could not do the fashion show without the help of makeup artists, hair stylists, photographers, videographers, and stylists, all of whom comprise a whole team of people who really love this event,” Feleceia said. “They look forward to it so much—maybe more than I do!”
Additionally, Feleceia works with local designers and stores to obtain clothes, shoes, and accessories that the models can wear. For 2019, her goal is to work with brands that would allow the volunteer models to keep the clothes that they wear during the show. “It would be a gift to the models,” Feleceia explained.
Everyone is invited to attend this special event on March 21st, and tickets will be available on the Think Out, Be Light website early in January 2019. Ticket sales offset expenses for the event, including venue and equipment rental. And volunteers are definitely needed to help make the event a success. “If people want to be involved, there are a billion and 55 ways to do so,” Feleceia said, laughing. She recommended that volunteers who want to help, either by donating their beauty-specific expertise or by being a willing helper in other capacities, fill out the volunteer form on the event’s website.
Feleceia never worries about having enough volunteers or supporters for the event, though. “My experience in Dallas is that people are so quick to help even when they don’t know you,” she said. “If they believe in your cause, they are so willing to offer whatever it is that they have to make it happen.”
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