A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Compassion plus positive energy plus service equals Dave Wickstrom

Dave Wickstrom, with a Haitian child he met on a service trip, would like to arrange a similar trip to Haiti for people with disabilities so that 'they can get the same satisfaction of serving in a foreign country as I do.' (Photos provided)

Dave Wickstrom, with a Haitian child he met on a service trip, would like to arrange a similar trip to Haiti for people with disabilities so that ‘they can get the same satisfaction of serving in a foreign country as I do.’ (Photos provided)

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

In talking recently to disabilities advocate Dave Wickstrom, I could see that early in his life he developed a soft spot in his heart for vulnerable individuals. It showed up while he was a first-grader, at Lexington’s Tates Creek Elementary School, where he developed a strong friendship with a classmate with Down syndrome.

The school’s principal, noticing the boy’s interest in his buddy, encouraged him in his loving endeavor. “You protect him” were his words, according to Dave, now 29.

“One day, at recess, the kids started throwing rocks at him,” Dave recalled. “I picked up two handfuls of rocks and started chucking them at people because they were throwing at my buddy.”

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood trips orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state. “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Today, as the director of Independence Place, in Lexington, along with being the president of Beep Baseball Kentucky, Dave Wickstrom, still resists those he believes throw rocks at people with disabilities. “It’s kind of my philosophy today,” he said. “If people throw rocks at my friends with disabilities…I’ll throw it right back at them.”

According to its website, Independence Place is a resource center for independent living for those with mental or physical disabilities. It is non-residential. Its mission is to provide information and referral, peer support, independent living skills training and education, and advocating for consumers with disabilities. Independence Place, the site says, seeks to “achieve their full potential for community inclusion through improving access, choice and equal opportunity.”

Dave embraces the mission to the tune of 80 hours a week, he says, if you include the time spent on developing Beep Baseball in the state. “I feel like if I do things for myself, I’m not serving the people that I love,” he said. “It’s hard for me to take time off.”

Independence Place communications liaison, Sara Faulkner, expressed his work in this way: “Dave is both visionary and creative in finding ways to assist individuals with disabilities. He shows compassion teamed with positive energy while serving others.”

One of the creative ways he has found to help is partnering with the Kentucky Department of Education to offer professional development regarding adaptive athletics to teachers statewide. “We are the only organization offering this type of training,” said Dave. Through his initiative, Independence Place has recently been designated a “Paralympic Sports Club.” According to him, this initiative “will give folks with disabilities in Kentucky a direct pipeline into the Paralympic Training Program if they want to compete at the highest levels.”

The Beep Baseball project, an adaptive game designed for those who are visually impaired, was one Dave embraced less than two years ago after watching a special program on the sport on ESPN. Beep Baseball Kentucky recently achieved an important milestone. On May 22 in Frankfort, it launched what is called the “world’s first dedicated blind baseball park.”

State dignitaries and local government and community workers spoke at the endeavor, and a demonstration game was played. The park is located on Old Lawrenceburg Road, along the Kentucky River, not far from the Kentucky State Capitol. It is hoped by Dave and others involved in the project that the Frankfort location will host a future Beep Baseball World Series.

Dave Wickstrom speaks at the dedication of the “world's first dedicated blind baseball park” May 22

Dave Wickstrom speaks at the dedication of the “world’s first dedicated blind baseball park” May 22

The always transparent Dave Wickstrom explained his motivation in tackling the outreach: “The reason I got into Beep Baseball was because I’m probably one of the cockiest people you’ll meet,” he said. “I got into it because it was a challenge to me. I didn’t know anything about blindness, but I dug deep and I’ve learned about it.” That, and Dave’s long-time passion for those with disabilities. It just seemed a natural fit.

One of his greatest resources in conquering the steep learning curve is District Court Judge David Holton, Louisville, who is blind. Holton introduced him to people both inside and outside of the government who could be helpful in establishing and growing Beep Baseball in the state. “I was glad to be there to be a conduit for him,” said Judge Holton. “He has the tenacity to see a project through to fruition. He is tireless in the work, has put in long hours and he really cares about people.”

Another champion of those with disabilities, Brewster McLeod, calls Dave a “fireball” in praising his dynamic advocacy. McLeod founded and directs the wildly popular “Jesus Prom” annual event at Southland Christian Church, Lexington. McLeod said that Dave “loves the least of them” and is outside the box” in that regard.

Dave muses about his “bucket list” of objectives he’d like to accomplish, both in the short- and long-terms of his advocacy of the special needs population. Perhaps foremost is to see the winding down of sheltered workshops as an employment model. “I think it is important to give individuals with disabilities real opportunities to make real money so they can get off government assistance and feel good about themselves,” said Dave. He decries the idea of having individuals be permanently involved with the workshops, when, he said, “the original purpose was to train for future jobs in public.”

He would like his friends with disabilities to venture on a trip to Haiti with him so that “they can get the same satisfaction of serving in a foreign country as I do.” Dave would also like to write a book on inclusion and run for local public office, where he could create a law “that makes the world a better place for my friends with disabilities and makes a difference for them long after I am gone.”

I asked Judge Holton what he thought of the idea his protégé might enter politics. Would it affect his ability to influence his disabilities advocacy?

“Dave will be a success in whatever course he chooses,” he replied. “I’m sure that the cause of disabilities will be foremost in his mind.”

Some might call him a man of passion, and they’d probably be correct.


Northern Kentucky native Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. His new book, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” has recently been released and is available for purchase. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, as well as a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his past columns for excerpts from all his books. him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or friend him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment