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Many people know Rick Ross as Kingston’s busy parks and recreation director.
They’ve seen him at soccer fields, at Fourth of July events or around the community pool.
But there’s something many may not know about him.
Ross has a condition so severe that a doctor once offered to authorize a handicapped designation to make it easier for him to get around.
Ross suffers from psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune condition.
Because of genetic and environmental factors, the bodies of people with the condition turn on themselves, creating painful, inflamed joints.
Sufferers can go back and forth into remission, but there’s no known cure.
Ross was diagnosed as a teenager, when his aches could no longer be dismissed as “growing pains.”
He admits the early years were an emotional struggle.
Ross was working at the Kingston pool when one doctor told him, “I wouldn’t want you to be my lifeguard with joints like that.”
And as he prepared to go to college, a doctor offered to get him a handicapped designation for easier parking or for shuttle rides to classes.
Ross politely declined.
“I think there’s a stigma to it, especially when you’re young,” Ross said recently. “People think you are pulling their leg.”
Pain, limited motion and skepticism from others has another downside.
“Depression sets in,” Ross said.
But something else happened during his college years that changed Ross’ outlook.
One night, during a remission, he decided to head to the track at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
He ran into a guy he remembers only as Larry, and they got to talking. It was easy to pour his heart out to the stranger who didn’t seem to judge him.
Larry apparently had some serious problems of his own, but said he had gained hope from Ross’ trials.
“You probably saved my life,” Larry told him.
It’s a story that has stayed with Ross.
“I found out that sharing my story had a positive and had power — rather than hiding it,” he said.
This year, Ross is sharing with a broader audience than ever before.
He has been selected as the adult honoree for the Dec. 14 Knoxville Jingle Bell Run/Walk, one of the primary fundraisers for the Arthritis Foundation.
Ross isn’t just a figurehead — the face of someone with arthritis. He’s in remission and training to run.
He’s also working hard to raise funds.
He’s off to an admirable start, already listed as the fourth-highest individual fundraiser on the race’s website.
He is also looking to gain members for his racing team, Joint Effort. The team had 17 members, but Ross hopes to have 25 by race day Dec. 14.
Not everyone has to run in the event where participants are encouraged to have fun. The event offers a 10K race, a 5K race and a walking portion. Many don reindeer antlers and others, like Ross, weave jingle bells into their shoe laces.
Still, the run is serious business. There are around 100 kinds of arthritis, several of them affecting children. Some also affect eyes and other organs.
Arthritis is also one of the top causes of disability in the United States, according to the Arthritis Foundation.