Eleven years ago, after retiring from a long career at Central Insurance, Jerry Hoffman received a phone call to assist a fourth grader in a wheelchair for a couple of weeks. Derek Hill, a fourth grader diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, had fallen and need help with his wheelchair until he could walk again with his walker. At the end of the two weeks, the school asked if Jerry could continue helping Derek.
“Nine years later, we graduated from High School,” said Jerry.
Derek, now 21 years old, has volunteered at Van Wert Elementary School three days a week for the last two years with the help of Jerry. Jerry picks Derek up from his house, driving Derek’s family’s handicap accessible van to Van Wert Elementary School. Derek volunteers in the library from 9-11:30 a.m. while Jerry helps as an aid elsewhere in the school.
Jerry was a part of Future Teachers of America his Junior and Senior year. However, he didn’t have the funds for College, so he joined the Army. Later, he started working in the supply department at Central Insurance to save money for college, and then met his wife. He never made it to college, but worked his way up the corporate ladder, spending his last 31 years in Marketing at Central Insurance.
Jerry’s wife, of almost 55 years, passed away a year ago. His involvement with the school and being able to help Derek has not only helped fill a void but also fulfill a lifelong dream of being a teacher. Teachers and students fondly refer to him as “Grandpa Jerry,” a special title as he doesn’t have any grandchildren of his own.
A remarkable pair, the strength of Jerry and Derek’s friendship shines as they talk about Derek’s successes throughout the years they have shared. When Derek was in middle school. Jerry saw that Derek was excelling in his special education math class and encouraged his teacher to move into a more advanced curriculum.
“He couldn’t participate as much in his physical education class, so during that time, I tutored him in math. By the time he was a sophomore in High School he was beyond my math comprehension and ended up averaging a B in Algebra his Senior year.”
Jerry also knew when to take a step back at school. As Derek got older, Jerry backed away a little bit to let other students assist him, aiding in Derek’s peers to get to know him better.
“If he needed me, he would give me a thumbs up. The kids reached out to help and got to know him, and he got to know them. He became part of the group. Some of the kids that helped the most were the ones who had their own struggles.”
Derek’s influence and popularity among his peers grew through high school, and when Derek was a Senior, he won an award for the student of the year that has done the best in the situation they are in. Derek received a standing ovation.
“I’ve never have heard him complain about his situation,” said Jerry.
“I know I’ll be walking and running around after this life when I go to Heaven. This is just temporary,” said Derek.
Derek and Jerry also reminisced about Derek’s Football poem that hung in the Football locker room and participating in the Homecoming Parade on the football float. Derek has a heart for football and enjoys playing football video games. “I love playing football video games since I couldn’t play the sport. That’s why those games are important to me,” said Derek.
Derek says if he attends college, he is interested in web design and engineering. Both areas he was introduced and excelled at in school. When he’s not volunteering, he likes to play with his 6-month-old puppy Bella, a German Shephard mix. He also attends Trinity Friends church and runs the scoreboard for the Upwards basketball program. Derek enjoys seeing his closest friends Taylor and Cade, when they come home from college, enjoying lunch together, or going to a movie.
“This is our 11th year together, and our plan is to try to do 11 more. That will get me to 88 or 89 years old,” said Jerry.