Milford’s Haggerty building life-long friendships with Hand-in-Hand program

NEWARK – Incoming Milford High sophomore Justin Haggerty has been building friendships through the DFRC Hand-in-Hand program for about a decade now.

Not only that, but he’s been changing lives and putting a lasting impression on the other participants in the program, as well.

The DFRC, or the Delaware Foundation for Reaching Citizens with disABILITIES, launched its Hand-in-Hand program in 1974 and has made it the centerpiece of the annual Blue-Gold All-Star Football Game.

Justin Haggerty with fellow Hand-in-Hand buddy Kennedie Arthurs prior to kick-off of Saturday night’s 63rd annual DFRC Blue-Gold All-Star Football Game (The Chronicle/Ben Heck).

Each year, the organization pairs one or more senior participants with a Buddy, a child or young adult between the ages of 4 and 18 who has an intellectual disability, according to dfrc.org.

The 15-year-old Haggerty, having just completed his freshman year at Milford High School, started with the program when he was five years old and has truly embraced everything the program has to offer.

“When he was five he got involved in the DFRC program through school,” his mother, Ann Haggerty, said Saturday. “That’s how we found out about it – they brought the paperwork to us and we filled it out and he got a buddy – the buddy was from Lake Forest High School. That’s how it all started and it’s just been an amazing journey.”

Each February, Justin finds out who his Blue-Gold partners will be for the year. This year, he was paired up with a trio of Milford High football players – Thomas Eisenbrey, David Bowman Jr. and Jordan Waters.

Leading up to the June all-star game, the group attended DFRC-sanctioned events such as the Hand-in-Hand dance party, Buddy Bowling and the Buddy Walk/Picnic.

“I would probably say the most exciting part for him is the dance party where all the buddies come together and get to see each other again,” Ms. Haggerty said. “They’re all with their partners – whether it’s a football player, a cheerleader or an ambassador. He just loves making those connections with all those kids.”

The trio of Milford football players didn’t stop with just the DFRC-sanctioned events.

Eisenbrey, Bowman and Waters already knew Justin prior to getting involved in with the DFRC program in February and would often see him in gym class or in the Milford High hallways.

“They are all wonderful guys – they’re at the top of the list. We’ve been so fortunate and so lucky to have some wonderful kids,” Ms. Haggerty said of this year’s Milford participants. “They’ve been to the house, we’ve had pizza and they would come hang out. Justin’s been to the fire hall with Thomas since he’s a firefighter for Milford, so they put Justin in the uniform and had some truck time, so he got to experience all of that.”

Haggerty, middle, with Thomas Eisenbrey, David Bowman Jr., Jordan Waters and coach Shaun Strickland (The Chronicle/Ben Heck).

Once paired with a Blue-Gold participant, Justin has a friend for life and often keeps in touch with past Milford participants.

“Whether it’s through Facebook, or they call Justin, or they see Justin in town,” Ms. Haggerty said. “Some of the guys from Milford end up coming back. Nick Jefferson has come back to Milford as a science teacher, so he sees Nick. It’s been a full circle for one of his buddies, Ryan Deeney, who is now his one-on-one para-professional at Milford High School. Just those relationships he’s built are beautiful.”

Past players, ambassadors and cheerleaders who have been paired up with Justin have had the opportunity to gain valuable lessons that they’ll be able to take with them wherever they end up in life.

“Really what’s been the best part of this, as a family, is watching Justin change the mindset of others about abilities,” said Ms. Haggerty of the benefits of the program. “I think a lot of kids come into the program and haven’t experienced someone with a disability and when they have that wonderful opportunity to bond and have time together it changes them to understand abilities. It’s something they’ll take with them the rest of their lives.”

Sports Editor Ben Heck can be reached at bheck@newszap.com.

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