In Laurel, Maryland, one man has dedicated his life to rehabilitating birds – and he’s helping rehabilitate people in the process!
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According to Rodney Stotts, many people don’t take him for the “falconer and conservationist type.” It is his great joy to remind them not to make assumptions based on appearances.
This is a rule he lives by when it comes to his life’s passion. He has the honor of giving the birds “a new life” when many others would have written them off as a lost cause.
“And I think that’s what I was given,” Rodney added. “I was that bird that had to go through rehabilitation. And once I was rehabilitated, I was released back into the wild with more knowledge now than before.”
Rodney is a Washington native who grew up in the heart of the drug epidemic and saw the effects of it within his own home. As he got older, he turned to what he knew and began dealing drugs.
But after attending 33 funerals in one year, all for drug dealers he knew, he had a wake-up call. He retired from his former life and never looked back.
In the 1990s, he had to find a job in order to sign on an apartment, and in a twist of fate, he ended up at Earth Conservation Corps. The nonprofit is dedicated to cleaning the Anacostia River, which is known for its excess pollution.
Soon after, the organization’s founder, Bob Nixon, introduced Rodney to a love for animals, specifically birds of prey.
“The first time I held a bird, period, it took me somewhere else,” Rodney said. “As I was changing from working with the birds and everything and seeing myself change, I couldn’t go back to doing anything else.”
Eventually, he earned his falconry license and was put in charge of the organization’s raptor program.
His passion for environmental education eventually led him to partner with the nearby “New Beginnings” Youth Rehabilitation Center and the Capital Guardian Youth ChalleNGe Academy, which are both programs for at-risk children.
Despite having to drive four hours from Charlotte Court House, Virginia, to the ECC campus, Rodney wouldn’t trade the opportunity for the world.
“He’s been engaged since the get-go – that’s the impressive thing,” Bob said. “He really feels the nature in his bones and gets a real reward in sharing that with people.”
For most of his students, it’s their first time watching someone earn the trust of such majestic creatures, let alone someone who comes from a similar background to their own.
In their weekly sessions with Rodney, the students head to the ECC campus to walk horses, feed birds, and watch Rodney work his magic. The raptors will rest on his arms and sometimes even land a kiss on his face – a level of trust Rodney has built slowly and with the utmost care.
It’s the same care he provides to the youth he mentors through ECC, Wings Over America, and his own nonprofit, Rodney’s Raptors.
Over the course of his 30-year career, Rodney has come across students facing substance abuse, issues with violence, and deep loss and pain. For Rodney, every story is an opportunity to tell them where he came from and show them the change they’re capable of.
“There’s a lot of kids out here that don’t really have anything or don’t even believe in [themselves],” said Capital Guardian graduate Jamaal Hyatt. “Seeing somebody like that … can uplift them and give them a little bit more hope.”
It also gives them a chance to draw a connection between their lives and the seemingly hopeless lives of these flightless, injured birds who are gradually rehabilitated.
“I would see how a young person was [struggling to find direction],” Rodney explained. “It was the same as that bird.”
For one student in particular, Hollis Wright, Rodney was one of the first people to ever break through his walls and see him at his core. The tough love and care Rodney showed Hollis led them to become like family, so much so that even 15 years later, Rodney still calls him “nephew.”
“I was a bird with the broken wing when he met me,” Hollis said. “He took the time and he took the effort to show me that it’s OK to trust, that it’s OK to allow someone to help me heal.”
Of course, for every good characteristic Rodney sees in himself, he credits the birds.
“They’ve taught me more patience, more understanding, more compassion,” Rodney explained. “I love my birds like I love life. They’re a part of my family.”
What a powerful way to turn so many lives around! Thank you, Rodney, for dedicating your time to supporting animals and humans alike!
Watch Rodney’s story come to life in a trailer of “The Falconer” documentary (which will be broadcast on PBS on June 1), and donate to the community-focused nonprofit Rodney’s Raptors here. Don’t forget to share his incredible journey to encourage someone today.
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