PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — He went from saying 20 words as a 2-year-old — about 10% of what’s expected at that age — to becoming a professional public speaker.
Ben Hartranft, 24, of Lansdale, has faced obstacles as a person with autism, but he has continued to shine with an infectious, positive energy that friends and family call “Benergy.”
“Having autism is not a bad thing,” he said. “It doesn’t characterize who we are. Everybody’s unique and special, just like a rainbow.”
He runs a small business under the Benergy brand and works for his favorite professional sports team, all while being an ambassador for autism awareness. His love of sports is at the center of that, and his character embodies the resiliency, determination and loyalty of his favorite teams.
From barely talking to ‘now I can’t stop talking’
Hartranft is the youngest of three sons. When he was little, his parents worried he had a hearing problem because he wouldn’t respond to his name.
As his vocabulary development stalled, he received a formal diagnosis of autism at age 2 ½. His mother, Sandy Hartranft, admitted wondering what his life would be like.
Ben went to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia speech therapist Paula Barson, a program Sandy said “kind of broke it open for him.”
“[Paula] taught me how to talk,” said Ben, “and now I can’t stop talking.”
It’s become a signature trait of his. He loves conversing with people and is fascinated by what a random stranger does for a living.
“And I say, ‘Thank you for what you do.’ I’m not afraid to talk to anybody,” he added.
Connecting with the Eagles through a shared mission
Ben has been a devoted Philadelphia sports fan since he was a kid. Sandy said he exudes passion when he watches a game — sometimes mixed with stress as he roots for his teams. He loves to cheer and celebrate regardless of the season.
“If it’s hockey season, he’s digging out his Flyers shirts, and if it’s basketball season, he’s up in the attic … ‘Wait, I need my Sixers jerseys.’ He just has always been such a huge fan,” Sandy said.
His favorite is the Eagles — it runs deeper; it hits home. They sought him out.
The Eagles reached out to CHOP looking to feature someone who lives with autism. CHOP suggested Ben. During the 2017 Super Bowl season, the Eagles shared his story in their “Road To Victory” series. Autism awareness is a cause that has become a top off-field initiative for the Eagles organization, driven by CEO and chairman Jeffrey Lurie. The Eagles Autism Challenge has raised millions of dollars over the last five years.
Ryan Hammond, executive director of the foundation, said Ben has raised more than $88,000 as an individual participant. In fact, $10,000 of that came courtesy of “The Ellen Show” in 2018.
Ben had always wanted to be a guest on the show.
“Ben woke up one morning and said, ‘I’d like to be on ‘The Ellen Show,’’ ” Sandy recalled. “And I always say, ‘Well, I’d like world peace.’ But like, why would that ever happen? You’re just a guy from Lansdale. Why in heaven’s name would that ever work out? He was like, ‘No, Mom. I’m gonna make it happen.’ ”
He did, and it emboldens him to keep pursuing his passions, including advocating for better careers for people with disabilities.
“We need to hire more people with special needs,” he said. “And that’s what I’d love to see more NFL teams do.”
Another dream of Ben’s came true: He got to carry the Lombardi Trophy at the Eagles Super Bowl ring ceremony prior to the 2018 season. Hammond said Ben was picked for the honor.
“I was just trying to keep pace with him as he was working the room,” said Hammond. “To be able to see when the room was quiet, it was such a pivotal moment of the ceremony. … It was just a really cool experience.”
The Eagles have become Ben’s family. He is now a member of their game day staff, working as an ambassador and a greeter when fans arrive for games.
Always advocate for yourself
After his appearance on “The Ellen Show,” Ben started motivational speaking at schools, something he realized he wanted to do regularly. He approached his parents about starting a business as a family.
“And they said, ‘Let’s try it. And if it fails, it fails. If it goes, it goes.’ I’m just so thankful that it’s going,” said Ben, who serves as the president of Benergy1 Presentations.
“He’s just incredible,” Sandy boasted. “People always say, ‘Is he nervous?’ He’s spoken to 900 middle schoolers, teenagers … and they are just so engaged during the presentation. And then people say, that’s the best assembly we’ve ever had. He’s spoken at galas with very expensive plate dinners as keynotes and people were like, ‘I didn’t even want to come tonight. But that was the best keynote I’ve ever heard.’
Sandy, who wrote a book about her journey as the mother of a child with autism, said Ben’s message resonates because "we all want to be that kind person advocating for ourselves and reaching for our dreams.”
The next step for Ben? Greater independence. He learned to drive and hopes to soon have his own apartment — “growing up and just being myself.” In the meantime, his advocacy for inclusion continues.
“If you believe it, you can achieve it and keep fighting,” said Ben. “If you want to keep doing something, you should always advocate for yourself.”