Rodney Stotts is passionate about birds of prey. He once preyed on others as a drug dealer. But he gave up drugs and now works with conservation groups. Stotts regularly returns to Anacostia, the poor Washington neighborhood where he grew up to teach young people about birds of prey and the importance of protecting the environment.
Rodney Stotts says he found his calling through birds of prey.
“I love my birds like I love life. They’re part of my family," said Stotts.
Working with birds, he says, helped the former drug dealer turn his life around.
“That quick, easy money leads to a quick, easy death. I don’t know any drug dealer that has retired," he said.
But Stotts retired in his 20's. He says attending the funerals of 33 drug dealers in just one year was a wake-up call. He found work with Earth Conservation Corps, a local environmental group helping disadvantaged youth like him. He began rehabilitating injured birds of prey, to give them - he says - "a new life".
"And I think that’s what I was given. 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 than before," said Stotts.
He became a licensed falconer, hunting small prey with raptors. At this event in his old neighborhood, he talks about birds of prey and the importance of cleaning up the polluted Anacostia River.
"One of the things I want them to see if what lives along the water every day, the raptors, and our negligence is killing them," he said.
Some of the birds he’s showing them are injured, and can’t survive in the wild.
Kala Young says she’s only seen an owl on TV and wanted to hold one.
“It’s fun and interesting," she said.
But Latonya Pickens was hesitant.
“I’m scared a little bit because they keep flapping their wings," she said.
Ngende Pilgrim wants to become a falconer. He hopes Stotts will take him under his wing.
“It has to do with all the things I like doing, like being around animals, especially birds of prey," he said.
Stotts says he’s amazed at how deeply the birds touch people, both young and old.
“I think the biggest things that I get out of this is the smiles I see on people’s faces," said Stotts.
Wilma Raynor says Stotts is a role model for young people in crime-ridden Anacostia.
“It is encouraging for them to see someone come back into the community who has already gone on and done better," she said.
Stotts gives credit to the birds.
“They’ve taught me more patience, more understanding, more compassion," he said.
Today, he is working for Wings Over America, an off-shoot of Earth Conservation Corps, where he mentors at-risk teenagers through raptor rehabilitation and environmental education. They know about his drug dealing past - a reminder that they too, can soar above adversity.