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UPS driver's unlikely friendship helps family heal

UPS driver John DeForest and young friend Matthew Harding stand on steps of a UPS package car

From bustling city streets to quiet, snow-packed rural roads, UPS drivers tend to have a near-daily presence in our lives, no matter the location. While many know UPS drivers by first name or by their face, the truth is, rarely does recognition go further than a wave and "hello."

But for Estes Park, Colo., driver John DeForest, the connection with one of his customers, 8-year-old Matthew Harding, stepped beyond the front door steps.

"Matthew would come running when the truck came up," DeForest says. "When I've got a great young guy like this running out to see me, I'm happy to take some of my break and spend some time with him."

Although DeForest wasn't aware at the time, the role he played in the boy's life would develop into a friendship more poignant than he ever imagined.

Forging a friendship

DeForest met Matthew in 2012 when Matthew and his mother, Lindsay, moved to Estes Park from Texas. She found a job, and her mother, Robin McCann, watched Matthew after school. An avid online shopper, McCann received a lot of UPS deliveries.

"John probably comes by three or four times a week, so it didn't take long to learn his name. All the neighbors know and love John," McCann says.

Luckily for Matthew, DeForest usually arrived between 4 and 5 p.m., after Matthew finished his school day. McCann says her grandson was disappointed if he came home and saw boxes because that meant he had missed DeForest that day.

Strength after tragedy

In January 2015, Matthew's mother passed away unexpectedly in her sleep. She was only 30. "John came in and said how sorry he was. My sister was staying with me and she said, 'I can't believe the UPS man is so nice. He cares about his people,'" McCann says.

In the weeks that followed, DeForest brought Matthew two toy UPS trucks, including one styled with flames on the sides, and a book on motorcycles. "He was over-the-top trying to be kind to Matthew," McCann says. "Bringing something for him was really special."

DeForest was glad he could support his young friend at a difficult time. "I'm sure Matthew was inundated with unfamiliar people, and I hoped that his seeing me was a familiar face - someone who has been there and will continue to be there no matter what. He has a very good support base with his family. But after the death of his mother, I just wanted to let him know that other people could be there for him as well."

DeForest provides a positive presence in Matthew's life, McCann says. "John is a male figure who is interested in him and encourages him. For a while Matthew wanted to be a UPS man when he grew up. John is a role model for a little boy who didn't have a dad here with him. As far as Matthew is concerned, UPS men are heroes."

Friends reunited

McCann says that in spite of the upheaval over the past year, Matthew is doing great. He moved in with his grandmother and grandfather, Pat, and then to Texas to live with his dad.

DeForest says, "When Robin informed me that Matthew was going back to Texas to live with his father I felt so bad. I thought it was the wise thing to do - to reunite him with his father - but I didn't want to lose the guy."

It turned out to be overwhelming for Matthew's father to be a single working dad, and in November Matthew returned to Estes Park to live with his grandparents.

"Robin kept me posted about what he was doing, and one day I pulled up and she broke the news that they were bringing Matthew back. I couldn't believe it. I was so excited," DeForest says. He recalls their reunion. "I remember the look on his face. He seemed really happy to see me. It was kind of a special thing for him to come back again and see someone he knows, someone who brings him presents and stuff."

"It was a lot of change in a year, but Matthew rolls with the punches and has a positive attitude and a great sense of humor," McCann says. "Those things that are consistent - his grandparents, his school, the UPS man - every one of those things that he knows he can count on make it that much better for him."

A Colorado life

DeForest has driven his Estes Park route for nearly 25 years. Originally an Iowa farm boy, he graduated from Colorado State University, and a friend encouraged him to apply at UPS. "The rest is history," he says. He's been with his partner for 16 years and helped her raise two stepchildren, who are now in their mid-20s. "They're wonderful stepkids. We're best friends," he says.

While he's known plenty of kids along his route, including those he has seen grow from birth through college, he says his friendship with Matthew is unique. "I don't have any other little buddies," he says. "It's just one of those things. It's inexplicable."

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