ORLANDO – Sitting outside of Johnny’s Fillin’ Station restaurant, Orange County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jerry Ross Knighton watched as a virtual army of friends and family members showed up to congratulate him.
“This is unbelievable,” Knighton said of the huge crowd that turned out at the restaurant on Ferncreek Avenue to see him, including his older brother, Stan.
“He hasn’t left my side once,” Knighton said. “He’s just an awesome big brother. Today is his birthday, in fact.”
The crowd that showed up on Saturday night at Johnny’s Fillin’ Station wasn’t there for Stan Knighton’s birthday, though. It was Jerry Ross Knighton’s evening, and everyone was there to show their love and concern for a man who has endured so much, and yet resisted the urge to give up.
“You can’t sit here and say ‘Why me,’ “? Jerry Knighton said, as he sat in the wheelchair that enables him to move around. “God has a plan for me, and I need to figure out what that is.”
In July 2003, Knighton was involved in a life altering accident that left him paralyzed with a T-4 spinal cord injury, and resulted in a permanent disability. He remembers the accident quite vividly. It started when a friend asked Knighton to help him remove a limb from a huge tree.
“One of my deputies was a friend, and he was worried about that limb falling down,” Knighton said.
As they were attempting to cut the limb, it broke off and struck Knighton in the face, and sent him toppling down 41 feet – a devastating fall that could have killed him.
But it didn’t.
“It really messed things up when I hit the ground,” Knighton said.
Amy Morton, a member of the Orange County Fire Department, was one of the first responders on the scene that day, and she helped transport Knighton to the hospital.
“It was a team effort, with my crew,” she said.
“When I fell, Amy was the first paramedic who stayed with me all the way to the hospital,” Knighton said. “She saved my life.”
At the hospital, he recalls, “They told my family seven different times there was no hope.”
As it turned out, the physicians were wrong.
“My family said, ‘You don’t know who you have there on that gurney,” Knighton said.
On Saturday, Morton was one of the organizers of a fund-raiser at Johnny’s Fillin’ Station to raise money to train a service dog for Knighton. It costs between $10,000 and $15,000 to provide the puppy, named Sarge, with the training required for it to be able to meet all of Knighton’s needs.
“He’s going to be able to do a lot for me,” Knighton said. “He’ll be able to open doors. He’ll be able to go to the refrigerator and get me a Coke.”
“It’s at least a year’s worth of training,” Morton said. “He’ll be able to learn commands to help Jerry.”
Morton and other members of the Orange County Fire Department and the sheriff’s office have been holding a series of fund-raisers for the past few weeks to raise the money needed to train Sarge.
“The fire department and the police department are getting the word out,” Morton said. “There’s a brotherhood between a policeman and a fireman. This has been going on for a month, and we’re already at $12,000. The support from the community has been phenomenal. “
The therapy dog starts out as a puppy, and goes through 12 months of training, often with Knighton at its side, said Brenda Bouchard, a trainer with ABS Service Dogs, the agency providing Sarge to Knighton’s family.
“It’s about a year from puppyhood,” Bouchard said. “He will be taught to turn on the light switches and pick up objects, and the dogs have to learn to be comfortable with the electric wheelchair. It just takes time. We need an outgoing puppy to do this.”
Knighton worked for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office from 1983 until 2003, and was recognized for outstanding service on the job and for his volunteer efforts with various community organizations. He now lives in Gulf Shores, Alabama with his son, Spencer, an eleventh grade student.
Knighton said every day he feels so blessed for the love and support he’s received from his family, friends, colleagues at the sheriff’s office and the fire department – and, of course, from the entire community. He recalled that before his accident, he used to do volunteer work at the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village in Loughman, which provides trips to the theme parks for terminally ill and disabled children.
“Never did I dream I would end up in the same position,” he said.
But when the accident happened, he added, he also never imagined that so many people would work so very hard to help him recover from his injury and be able to lead a full and active life.
“They’ve raised a lot of money, and everybody has been so generous,” he said. “I go home and lay down at night and say, ‘Is this really happening?’ “
To learn more about therapy dogs, log on to www.ABSServiceDogs.com. To make a donation to Sarge’s training, click on the Paypal button on the web site.
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