Johnny Ray Gearhart had some rough times in his early years. “My father put me on the street when I was 12 … I was an addict. Then I started to attend a 12 Step program. I still go to this day. Someone put me in their house, set some rules on me, taught me a new way to live. He had me look for a job, and he wanted me to take an HIV test. Two weeks later it came back positive. My T cell count was so high they told me I was ‘too far gone’ to treat. I got so sick. I’d stand up at meetings and say, ‘I’m dying.’ Someone at a meeting got me in with a program that was testing a new drug for HIV. My counts went up, I got better, and they gave me a year to live. That was 20 years ago!

“During this time I was so sick that I spent a lot of time just in bed. I had a little Love Bird to keep me company. Someone got me a second one to be its mate. Turns out I had two girls. I put an ad in the paper to sell one, and I got lots of interest. So I had an idea. I sold some and bought some more and sold more. I started picking up used bird cages, and selling birds. I wasn’t supposed to do that where I was, and the cops told me I had to stop. I started taking my birds to a local swap meet. Within two years I had 12 spots at that meet!

“Then I opened a place in North Hollywood, called The Bird House. That went well, and I moved to a bigger space. Local people wanted to know if I sold dog items. The store next to me went out of business, so I took over that space and changed my business to Bird House Dog House. We sold dog food and supplies. I wanted to offer grooming, but I didn’t know how to groom. So I went to school and learned how. Now I own two stores, one in Studio City, run by my partner, Tim Kahler.”

Those stores need employees, and Johnny Ray and Tim open their doors to people coming out of drug and alcohol rehab programs. “We give ‘em a job. We sit down and develop a plan. Each person has different circumstances. They have to go to meetings. They have to have drug tests.” For 20 years people trying to change their lives have been offered a chance. “I can usually see in someone’s attitude. Some make it. Some don’t. Some do for a while then relapse. That’s not uncommon. I have a pretty good bull- sensor. I ask that they do what is required of them. I tell them, ‘If you don’t want to work here it’s that simple.’ I try to set them up for success. If they are not willing, it tells me they are not ready. I know I can’t save everybody, I can only help the ones that let me.” He has given hundreds of people a chance to learn the skills he shares. Imagine it… hundreds of people.

He does not only try to rescue people, though. During all these years Johnny Ray has rescued his fair share of animals, as well. “I’ve always done rescue, out of pocket. Any kind of animal at all, not just dogs. Finally, I started a 501C called Dog House Rescue.” (There are plans in the works to take this to a whole new level, but that story will have to wait for another article!)

The common theme in Johnny Ray’s life seems to be, ‘to serve.’ “We are very community oriented. We like to help other people. I believe I get to keep what I have by helping others. Of course I need to make money to live, but my goal is to give back, as well. Here is an example. There is this guy that has been in and out of a nursing home. He has kidney failure and heart failure. He had a messy house, full of animals. We got it clean, got surgery for one of his dogs that had eaten a bird toy and had a blockage. We nursed it back to health. It was a walking skeleton before the surgery. We have volunteers to do this, we call them ‘Team Clean.’ When that guy is well enough, he comes home and things are taken care of. His animals have been taken care of.” At some point that man won’t be able to come home, but Johnny Ray and Team Clean will no doubt help those animals find homes.

As Johnny Ray’s story poured out, I had to ask him. What drives him to do all that he does? He paused, and said, “That’s a really good question. I honestly believe it keeps me alive. Here is an example. I’d been feeling sick, chronic ear infections, throat problems, and sinus trouble. I went to several different doctors. Turns out I have blood cancer. But here I am, after 20 years of being of service to others. I’m being treated. I figure, I am doing the right things, but God is in charge. Things will come together the way they are supposed to be.”

His latest mission is to help the street dogs in Tijuana, Mexico. The goal is to collect 150 street dogs, spay/neuter them, groom them, treat them for parasites and have the sickest ones placed in foster homes for more advanced treatment. “I’ve been attacked by some people on Facebook. They asked why I wanted to help dogs there, and not the dogs here in the U.S.? I had to try to explain, the dogs don’t know what country they live in. They just need help. There are thousands of sick, starving dogs there.” A woman from New York heard of the efforts to help the Mexican dogs and contacted Johnny Ray. “She vacations in Mexico, and she knows what the situation is like there. She feeds the street dogs when she goes there, and feels despair about them. She contributed very generously to help. So we named the project Love Mary Lea. But here is the good news. When I got her contribution I had this odd feeling. I felt poor. I didn’t understand that, when I had just been given this amazing gift. So I sat a while, in the dark. For two hours I just sat there, alone with my thoughts. Then I realized, I have done so much in the past, with so little. And I had been given much so I could do more. And I realized, sometimes you just have to say thank you. So I did. I said ‘Thank you, God.’ And from the bird room, in the dark, I heard my male Cockatoo say, “I love you, Johnny.”

To contribute to the Tijuana project, check out Operation Love Mary Lea on Facebook, or check out Johnny Ray Gearharts Facebook page.