KILLINGLY, Conn. – Several weeks before his 21st birthday, Jonathan Benson noticed what he thought was a pulled hamstring. Just a few months later, he had no control of his right leg.
To make matters worse, Benson did not have health insurance. Although he was recently promoted to a part-time position at a Frito Lay factory, he needed full-time status to obtain coverage. So, as Benson’s limp developed into a drop foot and his vision deteriorated, he began working five days a week instead of three.
Benson continued to see doctors, but paid out-of-pocket for the visits. His mother Robin watched as her young son’s limp worsened and his health crumbled.
“He was suffering from some unidentifiable ailment that was rapidly weakening him,” she said. “I struggled. It was difficult to watch his health worsen.”
Finally, in September 2008, three months after his symptoms had begun, Benson received health insurance. The next month doctors told him he had multiple sclerosis.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease affecting the central nervous system. It can restrict movement though the progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot be predicted. Symptoms can include, among other things, numbness in the limbs, difficulties with vision and speech, stiffness, loss of mobility and, in some more severe cases, total paralysis. The cause is unknown and there currently is no cure.
“The majority of the time when I felt sick I just worked through it,” he said.
Benson followed the usual Frito Lay employment process. He began as a temp then was promoted to part-time, then full-time. The protocol coincides with the company’s national policy. Benson had to prove himself to be a diligent employee, even while battling MS, to be eligible for a full-time position.
Now he works as a packer/box dropper during third shift, which runs from midnight to 8 a.m. He still works five days a week, but because his co-workers support him whole-heartedly, they usually insist he take the occasional break.
Robin Benson also got her start on the third shift at the same Frito Lay factory 16 years ago. She said many of the employees who work that line knew her son even before he was hired.
“The people on the third shift have always looked out for Jonathan,” she said. “They’ve rallied around him and supported him in ways I never expected – that along with the support I’ve received has me fully convinced Frito Lay is our second family.”
Jonathan Benson admits he could not have made the switch to full-time without the support of his third shift co-workers.
“The people on my shift are great,” he said. “They’ve all helped out a great deal. They’re part of the reason why I love my job.”
“But they support Jon because he’s a good kid, not because he’s my son,” his mother insisted. “In fact the outpouring of support has been phenomenal. People seem to identify with him because he has projected himself as a good employee.”
Since Jonathan Benson has been so well received within the Frito Lay family, the Frito Lay Walk MS team was established in his honor. Many factory employees along with Chester Cheetah himself will step out in a show of support Sunday, April 26, for the Travelers Walk MS.
Jonathan Benson, who has since regained mobility, plans on completing the five-mile route. He said he enjoys activities such as the Walk MS and his job as a packer/box dropper, which keep him moving.
The Frito Lay Walk MS Team will step out in Woodstock on Sunday, April 26. Walk MS raises awareness and critically needed funds for the more than 6,000 Connecticut residents who live with the disease.
There are 11 other walk sites across Connecticut including, Cheshire, Clinton, Enfield, Litchfield, Manchester, New London, Simsbury, Storrs, West Hartford, West Haven and Westport. Participants at these sites will step out Sunday, April 19, at 9 a.m. To learn more about the Travelers Walk MS, presented by Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, or to register, please visit www.ctfightsms.org. Learn more about multiple sclerosis, its effects, and programs by e-mailing programs@ctfightsMS.org.
Travelers Walk MS community partners include WTNH News Channel 8/My TV 9, Clear Channel Radio Connecticut, to include The River 105.9, Country 92.5, KISS 95.7, 104.1 FM, ESPN 1410 AM, KC 101.3, 960 WELI and ESPN 1300 AM. Other community partners include 95.9 THE FOX and WCTY 97.7.
Katy Nally, a resident of West Hartford, will graduate from the University of Connecticut in May. She is currently pursuing a Bachelors of Arts degree in journalism and serves as a public relations intern at the National MS Society in Hartford. For more information on internship opportunities with the Connecticut Chapter, please contact Karen E. Butler, Vice President of Communications, at kbutler@ctfightsMS.org.