A presentation at York Catholic High School on autism awareness on Nov. 22 was more pep rally than assembly, as 21-year-old Ben Hartranft captivated and energized students with his story of exceeding expectations while living on the spectrum.
“Hello everybody! This is Ben Hartfrant,” he eagerly summoned students over the public-address system. “I’m going to present your assembly today! Who’s excited?”
Students arrived in the auditorium to music and cheers from Hartranft, who ran through the aisles giving high-fives, telling the crowd about his nonstop “Benergy.”
Laughter-inducing video clips of Hartranft winning the Homecoming King title at North Penn High School in Lansdale, Pa., riding rollercoasters with Philadelphia Eagles’ center Jason Kelce and receiving the shock of his life on The Ellen DeGeneres Show filled the presentation. But Hartranft’s message was clear and serious.
“The message today is we need to let people know that having autism is not a bad thing, and it doesn’t characterize who we are. Everyone is unique and special, just like a rainbow,” he said.
Autism refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behavior, speech and nonverbal communication. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 59 children in the United States are on the autism spectrum.
Hartranft, in addition to working part-time at Olive Garden and Dorney Park and serving as the Philadelphia Eagles’ Autism Challenge Ambassador, takes his message, “Never let go of your dreams,” to school students, aiming to inspire those who have a disability and those who don’t.
“When people see me out there, they’re so surprised at first,” Hartranft told The Catholic Witness. “I love speaking, because I want the people to know that people with disabilities are still out there fulfilling their dreams.”
“Whenever I meet people, I treat them like a rock star and turn their frowns into smiles. I love going out and networking with people,” he said.
Hartranft was accompanied by his parents, Glenn and Sandy, who have watched in awe as their son – diagnosed at age two and predicted to never speak more than 20 different words – has taken therapists, teachers, peers, audiences and athletes by storm.
“It’s been quite a journey. We’ve seen how God always put the right people in our lives at the right time, from the right speech therapist to the right tutors, so he could always take that next step,” Sandy Hartranft said. “He loves speaking to people and telling his story, he never gets nervous. This is his dream, his passion to increase awareness for autism.”
The Courage to Stand
“I teared up watching him and listening to his story. I never saw anyone get that kind of reaction from students at an assembly,” said student Grace Hatchard.
After the presentation, students gathered around Hartranft, eager for selfies, hugs and handshakes as they waited to greet him in the lobby.
York Catholic dedicated its monthly Mission Collection to the Eagles’ Autism Challenge, giving $1,000 to help autism research and programs.
Hartranft visited York Catholic’s Learning Support classroom, where students asked him about his experiences with learning, and how he was regarded by teachers and peers in school.
During the small-group discussion, Hartfrant pointed to a message of inspiration on the classroom wall, painted by a student: “It’s easy to stand with the crowd. It takes courage to stand alone.”
“I love that message. That’s everything, right there,” Hartranft said.
“My message to you guys in this classroom is, pray, pray, pray,” he said. “It’s not always easy. There were times I didn’t get what I wanted, but I continue to pray because God is leading me.”
Carolyn Obermeier, Learning Support instructor, said Hartranft reinforced the powerful message her classroom has been sharing since she started the program 16 years ago.
“Ben’s message is what I tell my students every day, so for them to hear that from a peer reinforces that they can be different and still make a difference in the world,” she said.
“When parents come to York Catholic to see if our school can educate their child, they are so impressed with our resources and the help we can give students with learning challenges,” she said. “Our school is open to anybody that has a learning difference. I have students who come in here, even if it’s just for a hug or to talk about things during lunch or study hall.”
The Learning Support program started with 20 students, and now serves more than 100.
“We’re a family in here,” said Obermeier. “I get to know them so that when they have a problem, they feel comfortable enough to talk to me.”
Freshman Avery Heist, who came to York Catholic last year, said she’s benefitted from its resources.
“‘Miss O’ is there to help me with anything math related. She will do anything and everything in her power to help me out,” she said. “It’s really heartfelt because everything I do here, I’m getting a stronger education because of everyone’s support for me. It just makes my heart feel full of joy to know that I can learn just like everyone else because I have the help to strive forward, just like Ben said we should all do.”
“I thought Ben’s message was wonderful,” Avery said. “He’s so positive, and it makes me want to be a better me. I try my very best to see the positive side of things. It was amazing to see him show that.”
(Learn more about York Catholic High School at www.yorkcatholic.org. See a video of Ben’s journey at https://www.philadelphiaeagles.com/video/road-to-victory-ben-hartranft-20062528.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness