Hancock County Sheriff Michael Heldman (from left), Deputy Brett Turner and Deputy Michael McGuire are shown with Joseph Miller, who will turn 15 on Saturday. Miller has forged a special friendship with members of the sheriff’s office, and many will attend his birthday party this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Hancock County Sheriff’s Office)

By BRENNA GRITEMAN

LIFE EDITOR

A handful of sheriff’s deputies — and Hancock County Sheriff Michael Heldman himself — will be the guests of honor at a local teenager’s birthday party.

Heidi Miller of Benton Ridge says her son, Joseph, is celebrating his 15th birthday with a party Saturday afternoon at a local pizza shop.

She says Joseph has bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism and Tourette syndrome. He was born nearly three full months premature — weighing just 1 pound, 3 ounces — and had open-heart surgery at 3 days old. (“I call him my million-dollar baby.”)

Growing up, Joseph’s dad — Heidi’s former husband — was physically abusive, used drugs in the home and was in and out of jail. So when some of Joseph’s supposed “friends” started teasing him and beating him up in his first year at Liberty-Benton High School last fall, Joseph thought that’s just how friends were supposed to treat each other.

While Joseph has struggled to make friends with kids his own age, he has always been drawn to law enforcement — particularly sheriff’s deputies. Many deputies attend Gateway Church with Joseph and his mom, and he makes a point of visiting with the deputies on duty at the Hancock County Fair, Flag City BalloonFest and other local events. He knows most by name, and they know him.

Deputy Corey Hartman says he is familiar with Joseph through his work with the sheriff office’s crime prevention department. Hartman confirms Joseph is generally “polite and just wants to be around the deputies,” and says his colleague, Deputy Brett Turner, has become a sort of mentor to Joseph, helping to teach him how real friends behave.

Heidi adds Turner drops by the house about once a month, just to check in on Joseph and help him with his bike.

She says in general, the deputies have helped her son learn how to handle bullying and the value of simply being the bigger person and walking away.

Joseph wants to be a deputy sheriff when he grows up. Just this week, he and his mother learned that he’s been accepted to the office’s Explorers post, a hands-on program that introduces youth to various aspects of a career in law enforcement or criminal justice.

“That means the world to Joseph,” she said.

With his birthday approaching came another heartache for Joseph: “He invited a bunch of people to his birthday party, and either the kids laughed or they told him they would never come to his party,” Heidi says.

Ever the optimist, Joseph dropped off a handwritten invitation at the sheriff’s office.

“Joseph would like the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department to come to his birthday party,” Hartman read from the invitation. “He wants to thank you for helping him this summer to grow, and for being real friends.”

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