Olive Garden Host Ben Hartranft has a message about autism he wants everyone to hear: “Autism is not a bad thing because everyone is special and unique.” Ben sure is, and he has turned autism awareness into his life’s calling.
A huge Philadelphia Eagles fan since WAAAAY before they won the Super Bowl in February, Ben was delighted to take on a volunteer role with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Huddle Up for Autism fundraiser last March. The opportunity came about through the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where Ben was diagnosed with autism and received life-changing speech therapy.
What followed was even cooler: invitations to attend the NFL team’s training camp last summer and participate in a press conference for the Eagles Autism Challenge (a 5K and cycling event). Ben also got to meet Jeffrey Lurie, chairman and CEO of the Philadelphia Eagles, who promotes the Eagles’ involvement with their autistic fans.
Ben set up his own fundraising page to help support the Eagles Autism Challenge, which is coming up on May 19. During the event, the entire Philadelphia Eagles organization and thousands of Philadelphia residents will ride, run or walk to raise funds for research and programs to help unlock the mysteries of autism.
Late last year, Ben was honored by his heroes when the Philadelphia Eagles recognized him for his volunteer efforts and featured him in a TV report aired on the show “Inside The Eagles.” Ben shared the love as he watched the Super Bowl game. “It was really exciting. I was jumping up and down and screaming my head off!” he said.
Ben is a great addition to the Olive Garden restaurant in North Wales, PA, said General Manager Ryan Quinn. Since joining the team in late 2014, he’s worked as a baker, busser and host. “Ben is a vibrant, outgoing person with an infectious joy of life,” Ryan said. “Our team members and guests are fortunate to be exposed to his amazing positivity on the days he works.”
He was no less popular at North Penn High School where he was crowned homecoming king during his senior year in 2016. He still attends a life and work skills program there.
Ben said he’s treated with respect at Olive Garden and loves the job. “Hosting gives me experience helping guests when they walk in. When there is something I don’t understand, I can ask for help.” The best part is the friendships he’s made, he said.
Ben’s parents, Sandy and Glenn Hartranft, said Ryan has been supportive and thoughtful about Ben’s work. “When Ben asked to be trained as a host, Ryan was not sure Ben could handle the job because of the computer system and the fact that guests often make specific requests,” Sandy said. “So Ben went to his school and arranged to learn the host role with a job coach.”
“Some people have different talents,” Ben said, “and my future and vision is to help people get jobs in the real world.” He said the interview process can be tough for people with autism. “Someone might be good at the job but not interview well. Just because they don’t maintain eye contact doesn’t mean they aren’t listening.”
Ben loves roller coasters and also works as a park ambassador/greeter at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom, an amusement park in Allentown, PA.
He has participated in several autism research studies and he plans to continue increasing autism awareness. “I am so blessed that Olive Garden gave me this job experience.”