Denis and Leslie Wolff already have received two special Christmas gifts they consider miracles.

Their 16-year-old son, Ben, dribbled a basketball.

And Thursday, he returned to their Meadville home.

“We started out with a disaster. We’ve got a miracle; we’ve been blessed,” Denis said.

Ben, also known as “Shorty,” was released from Rehab South in Erie nearly 10 weeks after he was admitted to Hamot Medical Center with serious injuries sustained in an automobile accident while riding with some friends to a high school football game. He was thrown from the back seat of the vehicle in the crash.

For a while his parents weren’t sure he would survive, much less walk again or play volleyball and basketball.

He was in a coma at Hamot in the intensive care unit for several weeks before he was transferred to Rehab South.

Ben has to use a wheelchair for longer distances right now, but can walk with a back brace and will continue therapy in Meadville.

He was scheduled to be released from rehab Dec. 22 but progressed so quickly that he was released a week early.

Denis attributes the dramatic recovery to the care Ben received.

It just seemed like the right people appeared at the right place and time, Denis recalls. It started with registered nurse Debbie Pavlik at the crash scene. The emergency responders, the paramedics, the staff at Meadville Medical Center, Hamot and Rehab South all did exactly what they should have done, Denis said. Dr. Brian Dalton, formerly of Meadville, did the back surgery and Denis was impressed with the attention paid to the family as well as Ben. It seemed that the medical team was very concerned with helping them all understand Ben’s injuries and care.

While Ben was getting medical treatment, the entire family was getting emotional and physical support from many people, even strangers.

“There have been many who have been very supportive of Ben and also of us,” Denis said, adding, “they’re there at the drop of a hat.” From neighbors who mowed lawns and walked dogs to fellow employees at Syst-a-Matic Tool where Denis works, it seems someone was always offering help. Dairy Queen set up a fund and friends established an account at Northwest Savings Bank to help with accident-related expenses.

Prayers for the family were offered at area churches, by the women at the state prison in Cambridge Springs and by people in other states. Chaplains and others stopped at the hospital to pray with the family.

And it wasn’t just adults.

Teens Ben knew from playing volleyball and basketball conducted fund-raisers. They also kept in touch with the family and set up a communication line so that not everyone had to call the family for updates. “It was so incredible,” Denis said, amazed at the kids’ maturity and response.

“We’re blessed to live in the community we do,” he added.

Denis believes God has given Ben a chance to do something special in his life and Denis has already seen how Ben has helped other young people and adults in the rehab unit with an encouraging word.

At Rehab South, Leslie stayed in Ben’s room with him during the week while Denis worked. Denis went up on weekends.

Ben underwent rehab daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., including physical, occupational, speech and recreational therapy.

“My wife and I have certainly seen Ben’s determination through each day. He has shown maturity and strength through rehab. He will go the extra distance,” Denis said. “Ben will do what he’s asked to do — and then more. That’s his attitude. He wants to play basketball and volleyball again.”

Ben’s already dribbled a ball — last weekend during half-time at the Meadville Bulldogs basketball game with Strong Vincent in Erie.

Ben was on furlough from the rehab center and sat behind the Bulldog bench, cheering for the team. He had played on the junior varsity team last year and worked all summer at improving his game, hoping to make varsity this year.

Ben said physically he’s doing much better although he has to wear a back brace and can’t do any heavy weightlifting yet.

Dribbling the basketball again felt good, he said, noting it’s very nice to know that many people care about him.

He will receive in-home tutoring this year while undergoing therapy and will return to Meadville Area Senior High School next year as a junior — still eligible for basketball and volleyball for two years.

He’s excited about being home and having a little more freedom.

While Ben looks forward to spending more time with friends, Denis is grateful that all three boys in the crash are OK.

As Christmas comes this year, he encourages others to “Make sure to hug your kids, your family, your friends, even a stranger. Don’t let little things control your life.”

He added, “We need to look very closely at the community we live in. It is very precious — the love, concerns, gifts, prayers from people we know and don’t know. It is overwhelming.”

Jean Shanley can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at

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