PLATTE COUNTY – Sgt. Felicia Holbrook, Wyoming National Guard recruiter from Torrington, made a special day last week for a Platte County student.
It is not uncommon for Eli Jaren, a sophomore at Wheatland High School, to show up to school wearing retired military uniforms and greet everyone with a hug.
Eli often helps Holbrook set up product tables during recruiting visits. He’s competed in her Push-up Challenge for students to earn a free Wyoming Army National Guard t-shirt.
Eli is simply a patriotic kid with a sweet heart who happens to have Down Syndrome.
“Last time that I was here I was told that he’s super into the military, which was pretty obvious because he was decked out in military gear,” Hollbrook said. “They said that it doesn’t matter if it’s Army, Air Force, Marines, whatever.
“I figured it would make his day if we came down here and gave him a ride in a Humvee,” she said.
Setting up the special day for Eli only required a little bit of coordination and some time.
Because Eli is essentially non-verbal, he has a teacher’s aide who accompanies him throughout the day and also went with him on his Humvee adventure on Tuesday.
“Eli is a great kid. He’s full of energy, he’s excited to be here everyday, he’s excited to say ‘Hi’ to his friends,” Wheatland High School Principal Josh Sandlian said. “We just love having him here at Wheatland High School.”
“I think it’s pretty great. We try to make sure all of our kids are exposed to different opportunities,” Sandlian said.
Eli’s mother, Millette, was all smiles when he arrived in his camouflaged chariot.
“He’s just a really good kid,” Millette said. “I get teared up, because there was a little old man in the nursing home and when we go visit Eli’s grandma who’s in there, he’s since passed away, but he and Eli used to pass each other in the hall. And this man did not ever talk.
“One day Eli stopped right in front of him and they just kind of had this face-off moment where they just stood there and looked at each other,” she said. “And then all of a sudden Eli just stopped and saluted him. And then the little old guy looked at me and he grinned. And he goes, ‘You have a good boy’ and then he shuffled on down the hall.”
Millette said when she read the man’s obituary later, she found out that he was a veteran.
Millette said that Eli has a job working at Arby’s and also works at a thrift store.
Millette said when Eli was only a few months old he had to have surgery to repair a section of his heart and said the biggest challenge they face with him is with his speech. Then Eli’s father faced some medical problems that required the family to spend a few months in Denver, Colo., during Eli’s freshman year and said the experience helped to mold Eli.
“We kept Eli with us the whole time and he was just extremely helpful,” Millette said. “Like with all the doctor appointments and having to carry this big, heavy backpack that his dad now has to carry around. Eli always carried that around for his dad and that really matured him quite a bit.”.
When asked how he would describe his son, Eli’s father Randy had to laugh.
“Where do you start, and where do you stop? He loves playing drums, he loves going four-wheeling, he loves wearing camo,” Randy said.
Randy describes Eli as a gear-head, and was supportive of the opportunity to take a Humvee ride.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” he said. “When Millette told me they were doing that I thought it was pretty neat.”
The family likes to take trips to go four-wheeling at Moab, Utah, and they will be going during the upcoming Spring Break.
At one point during the ride, Holbrook took the ditch to give Eli an off-road experience and also drove through a gravel parking lot.
Both warranted huge smiles from Eli. He thought it was pretty cool and was completely at ease the entire ride.
“For me, it just touches my heart,” Holbrook said. “I talked to his mom on the phone and she said that even in the community if he sees a soldier he’ll go over and give them a hug or salute them.”