The Impact Clinton County Fair Special Needs Day Had On Me

Posted June 26, 2019 at 8:20 am

Caitlin and IG.psd

By Kelly Guffey

Clinton County Fair Board

The life of a carny is not an easy one. Between traveling mostly year round, setting up and taking down a show in a matter of hours, and being away from family and friends, living the carny life, as you can imagine, can be a stressful one.

Growing up you hear all kinds of stereotypes about all kinds of people. We hear that country folks are rednecks, city folks are snobby, and carnys are a lower class of people. Well, I may be biased because of my relationship to these folks but, for better or worse, here is my opinion.

I have attended county fairs my whole life. The smell of cotton candy and hydraulic oil mix in the air in a very intoxicating way. Getting dropped off at the front gate as a teenager I was told to be careful and not to lose anything, all of which went in one ear and out the other. While waiting in line for a ride, I remember watching the carnies and thinking what a strange life they must have. I remember being at county fairs where it seemed like if you spoke to one, it was destined that you would become trapped in their week long adventures at the county fair and no one wanted that. There were parties “after dark” that we heard about that I am still not old enough to talk about. I have even known a couple of people who ran off with the carnival, and their workers.

I have now been a part of the Clinton County Fair Board for several years and have watched a couple different carnivals come and go but none will ever be as special to me as Forever Young Amusements. John and Angel Young, owners and operators, hail from Georgia and their shows travel the US most of the year. They have been with us for four years now and every year gets better. Not because the carnival gets bigger or the rides get taller but because we have become friends. John, Angel, and their staff bring life to the county fair and I love them all for that.

I remember when Forever Young signed their first contract with us. John talked about doing a special needs day one afternoon during fair week. It sounded appealing to us but I, for one, didn’t know how it would work. He told us that they could cut the music, slow the rides down, and even turn off the lights to make people more comfortable so we jumped right in. I was able to attend the first Special Needs Day and it changed my perspective on so many things. I remember seeing vans and busses pull in from local adult day care places and nursing homes and, honestly, was nervous. Were we going to be able to accommodate them in ways that wouldn’t make them feel more handicapped than some were already facing? What had I gotten myself into?

The first van unloaded and I watched as those people came walking down into the carnival for the first time. The first thing I noticed was the look of excitement on many of their faces and began to realize what I had never thought of before. There are many things that go on for special needs children, but not adults, not these adults anyway. I was still nervous about how all this was going to work but I had my camera in hand and I simply followed the crowd.

The group headed straight for the Gravitron which, as most of us know, is a spinning mind-numbing ride that will give you the heart issues that the warning sign inside the ride tells you about. They walked right in and I, on the outside, was beginning to get even more nervous. The ride started and it didn’t seem like they were slowing it down much because I had been on that ride that week and was just as dizzy on the outside as I had been on the inside. The ride slowed to come to a stop and I could only imagine what the scene would be like getting people off it. Boy, was I ignorant in that moment. That door came open and those people flooded out with the biggest smiles I had ever seen. I was amazed at it. The next thing I know, we are moving on to the next ride! No breaks for breathing deep or chugging Sprite to keep dinner down, just laughter and screams of delight.

I walked around with them for a couple of hours watching only a couple of them taking breaks for water or a snack and then getting right back in the saddle of the carousel. I knew right then that my fair experience had changed. See, I had taken for granted all these years that I could go to the fair any time I wanted to while it was in town. I could ride any ride, play any game, and do anything and everything that I wanted to do. These people could not so this was their day. This was their break from normal life routine and physical and mental frustrations. They were kids again and it showed. I took probably 300 pictures that day and not one of them didn’t have a smile in it.

Over the years, I have gotten to know a lot of this group and when they see me in the middle of winter, they will remind me that it will be fair time soon and how they are coming to ride the rides and I better be ready to ride with them. I always smile and say that it’s close and I cannot wait….although in my head I am reminding myself about the five in a row ride I took on the carousel that about ended my life, all thanks to little miss Brenda. Ha ha

This year was no exception. The vans rolled in and here they came, smiling and laughing and wondering what to go to first. We had a blast the whole time they were there. We were fortunate enough to have a new group with us this year who hadn’t been able to come before so it was fun to see their new amazement at the scene. I have said all that to say this about the carnies that people like to put down and talk about…..they are simply amazing.

This was their day off, folks. There were so many other things that they could be doing but they chose to be there. They skipped the lake, shopping, resting, and relaxing to be with those people. They weren’t upset that they had to run rides in the middle of the day, they weren’t frustrated when it took some people longer to get on and off than others. They were just happy to be there. This year, I saw something that I haven’t seen before, only because I hadn’t paid attention until now.

There was a man in a wheelchair who, in his own way, had let them know that he wanted to ride the carousel. I saw a carny walk up to him, lift him gently out of the wheelchair, and onto the bench on the carousel. He proceeded to ride with him and they laughed and cheered the whole way. When the ride was over, the same carny picked him up and carried him back to his wheelchair. This man was ecstatic that he actually got to ride. All day long I noticed that these carnies were moving people on and off rides out of wheelchairs with ease and caring. They rode rides with them, walked around with them, and had pictures made with them. I even had one little lady tell me to look at the “cute man in the purple shirt”. I think she was quite smitten with him, even more so after he rode the Sizzler with her.

As the afternoon ended and the vans were being loaded back up, I heard one carny say to another, “This is my favorite day, man”. I thought about that the rest of the day while we were busy getting ready for the evening’s events and the carnies were getting ready to man their posts at their rides and games for the general public to come in and be snobby to them or cut their eyes at them for simply doing their jobs. The public doesn’t know what he or she did earlier for a man or woman in a wheelchair or for someone who was afraid to ride alone. The public doesn’t know that today, not tonight, was his favorite day, man.

So I have said all that to say this….are there good and bad carnies out there? Sure. Does a traveling carnival carry have a not so great reputation with them, without need? Sure. Are there carnivals and carnies out there who truly care about people and love what they do? Absolutely. That is what you will see with Forever Young Amusements. Putting my own friendships and bias aside, there is no carnival like it and no carnies are better, anywhere. From their greetings in the mornings to their tired smiles at night, John and Angel’s crew know what it means to care.

Special Needs Day will forever remain at the Clinton County Fair and we will forever be grateful to those carnies for caring so much about people who are otherwise overlooked. It truly changed my world view and it’s “my favorite day, man” too.

Kelly Guffey

Clinton County Fair Board

Clinton County Fair Board member Kelly Guffey and Caitlin at the carnival during the recent 2019 Clinton County Fair Special Needs Day.