Ricky Sifford: Pride and pups!

Ricky Sifford holds two dogs as he sits in a chair against a floral backdrop.

Feeling like you need a little rainbow boost? Is your Pride a little pooped? Well, you’re in luck because this Sunday, Sept. 10, former Portrait and all around great gal, DeAnn Cox will be presenting the South Jersey Gay Pride Festival just across the bridge at Cooper River Park. If you haven’t been, it’s one of the biggest and friendliest Pride festivals around. I’ve had the pleasure of attending the past two years and always had a great time listening to the fabulous entertainment and checking out the various vendors. At this year’s event, a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt from the Jersey chapter will be on display, and Ms. Cox wants me to let you know that there will be extra bathrooms, parking and ramps for those who need handicapped facilities. 

Some of the performers were familiar to me for their talent and for their own profiles in this column (if you want to know more about them). Our own drag diva Brittany Lynn will be MC of the event, which features performances by Rasta Boi, Ginger Alley and Andrea Lamour. Bridges For Life and the Independence Squares will also showcase their skills. But for me, the most impressive thing is the sheer number of people who show up for the festival. My head is on a swizzle as I take in people of all kinds having a good time on the bank of Cooper River.

One of the many vendors is this week’s Portrait, Ricky Sifford. Sifford runs R&J Pride Lemonade, a stand that raises money for service dogs for people diagnosed, as he was, with epilepsy. He’s been coming to the festival for ages, but it takes on a deeper meaning this year as DeAnn measures the one-year anniversary of being diagnosed with it herself. I spoke with Ricky as he sat with his best friend, a Chiweenie named Julianne.  

I understand that you’re from the same state as our president. What area of Delaware did you grow up in? What was your neighborhood like? 
Yes, I grew up in a farming community in Delaware. I raised pot-bellied pigs from the time I was little and we had ferrets, chickens and ducks. Growing up on a farm, we didn’t have much money, so I would train animals and do things like mowing the neighbors’ lawns to make money. I would always find ways to try to help out. I grew up pretty good until middle school, which is when I was getting sick. I had to transfer to a special school for a bit, but then they weren’t able to care for me, so I was home-schooled. 

What did you like to do as a kid?
I always loved animals, so I was always bringing things home. One time, I was fishing and this older gentleman said, “Hey, I’ve got this old horse. Do you want it?” And I was like, “Sure! I’ll take it!” and two days later, here he comes with a pony!

Any sports before you were diagnosed?
I played a little soccer and field hockey but I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was about 10 or 11, so I didn’t really have a chance to do much of anything.

How was it discovered? Were you having other health issues? 
My understanding is that there was a fight in the school, in our classroom and I got hit with a chair. And I guess that triggered it. 

Oh wow! And you don’t own the school? 

I guess that was before everyone got so lawsuit happy.
For sure.

So my only references for epilepsy are what I see in movies or on TV. What is your experience?
Well, I can’t really tell you because when it happens, you don’t remember anything. I only know what people tell me. You go down, usually, and your whole body shakes and you can’t control it. But you don’t know what’s going on at the time. When you wake up, you have to talk to the people around you to find out what happened. 

That’s got to be terrifying, especially in the beginning. 
Oh, it is. You wake up with a crowd of people around you. 

What did you do after high school? 
When I was home-schooled, they only did four hours a day, three days a week of schoolwork. So the rest of the time, I was at home and spent most of my time outside playing with the animals when I could or going to help a neighbor. I tried to function as much as I could. 

Well, you sure are helping people now. I understand that you travel all over with your lemonade stand raising money to procure and train service dogs for people with epilepsy. 
Yes, service dogs are $90,000 a piece and insurance don’t pay for it. A service dog is with a handler for two years of training. There’s a lot of training and only one out 10 of the dogs that are trained graduate to become service dogs. 

I saw a documentary piece about training dogs for the blind and the massive amount it takes to find just one dog with the right temperament to train. And even then, as you said, 90% wash out before actually becoming a working dog. 
Yeah, a lot of them become emotional-support dogs, which is nice, but not needed in the same way. 

What makes epilepsy dogs special?
My dog, Julianne, and I have another one now. Chloe can sense when an episode is going to happen. Your body produces a chemical imbalance that we can’t smell but the dogs can. So they can give me a warning an hour prior to me getting sick. 

That’s amazing!
Yeah, it’s pretty cool. 

My crazy brain’s immediate thought was, I wondered who first discovered it and thought, “Hey, that pup is smelling an epileptic seizure about to happen!” 
Yeah, it’s pretty impressive but there’s a lot of training that goes into getting a dog and understanding what it is that she’s trying to alert you to. They have a lot that they can do. 

Do you train dogs or do you just raise money to pay for their training?
I train dogs too. I have about 23, 24 dogs in training right now. In about 2018, I had an operation that’s really helped me function better in the community. Even with medications, it was hard to function before because I was still having break-through seizures no matter how much I took. So I decided to try VNS surgery. They implanted a device that sends electric shocks through you, kind of like a pacemaker stimulates the heart or a spark plug in a car. And within three or four weeks, it started working. I’ve had only a few seizures since the operation. I had a breakthrough one a few weeks ago that sent me to the hospital but it’s been pretty rare. 

Epilepsy is something that we don’t hear a lot about. It almost seems like it’s from another era. What is one of the misconceptions that people have about it? And what are some of the drawbacks?
It gets misdiagnosed a lot, and there are different types of seizures that are not associated with epilepsy. Some of them are brought on by things outside of the person, like stress or anxiety. Also, sometimes people think we’re faking it. I guess it can look pretty dramatic. Drawbacks? Having to rely on someone all the time, and not being able to drive. It’s taken me a long time to learn how to navigate things and figure out how to do them in a way that works for me. 

OK, enough about that. Let’s talk about how you went from farm boy to fabulous fellow!
So I was about 16 and the mayor of my town was gay and he found out that I was gay. It was right after the Matthew Shepard murder and I decided to hold a candlelight vigil in my little town of 250 people. He made a big thing about it and it was going to be in all the newspapers, so I came out to my family and told them what was happening and they were all OK with it, kind of, I mean considering we all grew up in the country. But now they’re all good with it and very supportive. 

How many in the family?
I have one sister and two brothers. I’m the oldest. Although I barely counted. I weighed 1 pound, 4 ounces at birth! 

Wowza! That’s about the size of an ostrich egg! 
Yup. I could fit in the palm of your hand.

Aww, that sounds so cute. But probably not so cute for your parents going through that. What did they do for a living?
Well, speaking of eggs, my mother works in an egg factory. My dad passed away about six years ago. We didn’t have much contact. My mom said that his work was being in and out of trouble.

So back to coming out, since you were homeschooled, I guess you didn’t have to worry about your classmates. 
I didn’t have to worry about them at all. It was a small town so everybody knew and no one had a problem with it. In fact, the high school let me participate in graduation day for my grade so I was able to go across the stage and get my diploma. 

And speaking of stages, let’s talk about South Jersey Pride! You’ve been vending there for a long time. Why do you like going there so much?
It’s by the waterfront, which is nice and different from most festivals. The people who run it and everyone there are all super friendly. It’s the best experience you could have. The drag kings and queens and all the performers are really great. It’s one of the best Prides that we go to and we raise a lot of money each year. 

That’s with your business, R & J Pride Lemonade, correct?
Yes, we are the only openly gay lemonade stand around. Sad but true. We raise money to provide service dogs for people and also for Johns Hopkins [Children’s Center]. The good thing is that if a kid from Johns Hopkins needs a dog, we can move much faster to get it to them since we have a relationship already. 

What does R & J stand for?
Ricky and Julianne. She’s my service dog who’s been with me a long time.

What were you doing recently at a tractor show? 
I also own a small carnival setup, also to raise money. And even at things like a tractor show, I make sure everyone knows that I’m openly gay. I think it’s important to be visible, even in places where you might not think it would be accepted, and I’ve never had any problems. 

So can people hire your carnival for parties etc.?
Yes, you can. 

Cool. Let’s go to some flash questions. If you had headphones on, what style of music is most likely playing?

What song can always get you on the dance floor?
“Shake it Off” from Taylor Swift

Best tip you’ve received?
A woman once gave us a $50 tip at the lemonade stand. 

What makes you laugh?
When I’m standing there with a crate full of lemons and people ask me if I use real lemons to make lemonade. You’re looking right at it!

Who’s a historical character you’d like to meet?
Ben Franklin. 

I used to be a tour guide many years ago and if someone asked who did something and we didn’t know, we’d say, “One in 10 it was Ben.” Biggest risk you’ve taken?
Bungee jumping off of a bridge in Virginia.

What’s a pet peeve?
Spitting. I hate it.  

Me too! I’m glad to hear a guy say that since men are usually the culprits!
It’s disgusting. Especially all the country boys with tobacco in their mouths. It’s nasty. 

Exactly. I really don’t want your crime scene DNA on the bottom of my shoes! What was your first car?
A hearse. 

Really? How did that come about?
I just think they’re really cool and I love Halloween, so….

And actor you’d like to do a love scene with?
Brad Pitt.

OK, you like the pretty boys. Are you single?
I am! 

So any of you thirsty fellas, go see Ricky at R&J Pride Lemonade on Sunday! And tip well. It’s for a good cause!

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