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Kentucky by Heart: Falmouth ‘Handi Camp’ counselor was bullied youth, now inspires special kids

Gary Knight, far left, accompanied Handi Camp participants and counselors on a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo.  (Photos provided)

Gary Knight, far left, accompanied Handi Camp participants and counselors on a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo. (Photos provided)

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

At the recent “Handi Camp” week at a church camp called Camp Northward, in Falmouth, one watching the activities would have observed a great picture of joy in the face and body language of Gary Knight as he carried out his work as a volunteer counselor for those with special needs.

They would see Gary and his silly socks or crazy hat, hear his raucous laugh, and notice his patient and comforting way of challenging his campers to try fun physical activities. They’d also see him sharing instructive and uplifting group talks in more quiet, contemplative moments.

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.”

At Handi Camp weeks, the youth group campers call him “Grandpa” or “Old Man,” both used affectionately, and many, even outside the camp realm, call him “Hillbilly,” also as a term of endearment. He has become a bit of an institution at the church camp at least twice a year since 2011, and actually since 2002 when considering the time he volunteered before Handi Camp originated.

Ironically, his sunny countenance today belies the pain of his often difficult youth, considering the way he was treated by his peers. Growing up in rural Grant County, near Crittenden, he was picked on a lot by his school classmates. Sadly, he even experienced a small bit of the the same when he attended church camp while a middle-school student.

“I was bullied in school,” he said. “They called me ‘skinny,’ ‘green teeth’ and ‘buck tooth,’ and I was last to be called on for games. Sometimes they wouldn’t even let me play with them at all.” It affected his classroom work negatively, and he often found himself thinking about ways to get back at those who were such a menace to him.

But perhaps because Gary had a supportive family, along with people who loved him at his Gardnersville Christian Church, he grew into adulthood considering the difficult early experiences, and he began to turn them into positives for others, especially vulnerable ones. Today, though his youth is a source of some pain, he is not a bitter person, and his actions give ample evidence.

“Gary is very faithful to us (at Camp Northward), and has been an encourager to our campers,” said camp director Clyde George. “He is very much aware of their physical needs, and he pushes them to be active. He’s very thoughtful.”

He has run a one-person taxi business for 32 years, called Cincy Taxi, and he explained his reasons for taking time off to faithfully help at the camp.

“It takes you out of you comfort zone,” he said, “but it is so rewarding. I didn’t know how I’d do because I had never done it before. I had a list of dos and don’ts to learn, and I learned to put the people at camp in front of myself.”

One of the skills he learned was how to lift individuals properly. “I learned how to pick up a 250-pound man by myself,” he said.

Gary is especially proud of the fact that he helped raise money last year for an adaptive swing platform for use with individuals on wheelchairs, and he also located a person who agreed to build one for a reasonable price. “The swing has made such an impact,” he said.

Besides Gary’s work at Camp Northward, he has participated in church-sponsored mission projects south of the United States, going to Guatemala five times, Honduras four and Haiti twice. He noted that the poor he works with in those places “are kind and appreciate you for coming to help. I thought I was raised poor, but I didn’t know what poor was like until I got to Haiti.”

He fondly appreciates his deceased father, Wayne Knight, whose personality resembles his son very closely. “I add to my name to be called Gary Wayne, or Gary W., to honor Dad,” he said. Asked what he would someday most like to be remembered for when he dies, he said, simply: “I just want to be remembered for having a good heart.”

He probably won’t need to wait that long for that wish to come true.

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Highway 27, Falmouth

Highway 27, Falmouth

Speaking of Falmouth, in Pendleton County, I know it as being one of the most memorable towns I was associated with in my youth. Though being raised in Campbell County, north of Falmouth, my parents knew people in the town, and our family frequently visited there. I attended Camp Northward a time or two, also.

Falmouth became tagged as a cursed community during the ’60s, and later in 1997, because of natural weather catastrophes that befell the town where approximately 2,000 people live today. I remember the images I saw as a child in 1964 while riding in our family car after a flood reached 19 feet above flood stage. In the downtown area, I watched individuals shoveling mud from their homes, with ruined furniture and other household goods laying outside in yards.

Then, in 1968, another family excursion down Highway 27 saw us peer onto the damage done when a devastating tornado touched down near the town, leaving three fatalities.

In 1997, another flood, cresting even higher than the 1964 one, caused a high level of damage. I even heard talk at the time of somehow “moving” the town to higher ground. Though I was living at Lexington by that time, my brother, Mike Flairty, incurred serious damage to his home and trucking business several miles north of Falmouth, in Butler.

I frequently drive through and occasionally stop in Falmouth today, and the people there seem to be friendly and forward-looking. A new bridge was built a few years back, a nice state park at Kincaid Lake buzzes, and one of the most vibrant fall festivals in the state, the Falmouth Wool Festival, is usually packed in early October, bringing visitors locally and beyond.

You never know what might happen at Falmouth in the future, but it’s always admirable to see communities move forward when challenging events occur. Perhaps the town is poised for some great things ahead. I’ll be one of their best fans as it happens.


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 here. 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)

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