Johnny Everything: A Profile of Johnny Rodriguez,
Program Director, Sunny Acres
Spend any time at Sunny Acres today and one name comes up right away: Johnny Rodriguez, the community’s program director.
“Talk to Johnny” is the answer you get if you ask a resident about how the place is run, what’s going on, where to find founder Dan DeVaul. Johnny is essentially the operations manager for what DeVaul calls the “magic” that is Sunny Acres.
Born in 1977 in Santa Maria, California, Johnny is the third of four children of Alfred and Lillian Rodriguez.
Alfred and Lillian divorced when Johnny was eight years old. For the first 14 or so years of his life, Johnny was a normal kid, not particularly troublesome. He played baseball in the Babe Ruth league. He was good, played first base, pitched. A big guy, Johnny was a power hitter.
Uninterested in school, ditching constantly, Johnny dropped out of Arroyo Grande High School for good in the 10th grade. He spent his days playing video games, getting into mischief. He joined a gang.
At 16, Johnny moved out of his mother’s house. Johnny was living with a girlfriend, working as a houseman at a hotel. At the same time, he gang banged, broke into cars, and fought a lot.
A particularly violent fight involving a pool cue in Pismo Beach at 16 sent him to juvenile hall.
Soon after Johnny’s 18th birthday, another fight brought a felony charge. And because of a gang enhancement, Johnny was facing 7 years in prison.
He lucked out, and was given felony probation. He took a job at McDonald’s, working for minimum wage. He also started dabbling with methamphetamine.
Johnny moved south to Chula Vista, about seven miles from the Mexico border, where he drove weed from Tijuana to San Diego. Easy money. A lot more than McDonalds, for sure. Busted with several pounds, his probation officer gave him a chance to explain.
“Tell me one good reason I shouldn’t send you to prison after you were caught with a car full of marijuana,” the probation officer said to Johnny.
“I couldn’t,” Johnny says today. “I admitted my guilt and took the medicine.”
Johnny spent two years in state prison, first at Wasco, then Susanville.
After his release, Johnny “still engaged in risky behavior,” primarily drug use. Meth was still his drug of choice, although he drank an awful lot.
He got a job at a popular Italian restaurant in Pismo Beach as a dishwasher. Soon after getting hired, the owner asked Johnny if he wanted to learn how to cook. Johnny said yes, and the owner showed him around the kitchen. Soon, the current cook was fired, and Johnny got moved into the kitchen.
Johnny was accepted by the kitchen staff, always an insular little group. They hit it off, in fact, and Johnny was there five years. He moved up, too. First, he worked as a prep cook, then pizzas; line cook; finally, banquets. He had respectable position, good salary.
Johnny started to more than dabble with meth, and his drinking binges became prodigious, lasting days. Johnny stopped showing up for work, making all kinds of crazy excuses, sickness, funerals, anything. Johnny lost that job.
Thus began a pattern of getting hired and quitting good cooking jobs in local restaurants, in Pismo, Nipomo. Grover Beach. Experienced cooks are always in demand on the restaurant-rich central coast of California and Johnny hop-scotched between them.
One day, Johnny learned his younger brother, Adam, died of an overdose of psyche meds and alcohol. Johnny blamed himself, since he introduced Adam to the drug life when they were boys.
“After Adam died, my drinking really ramped up,” Johnny says today. “I had lost the will to live.”
Johnny decided to just “fuck it,” and he quit his last job, gave away most of his possessions, and lived day-to-day, week-to-week out of his car and in local motels. He survived by making small drug deals and borrowing money from family. He was drinking a gallon of vodka a day.
He had a girlfriend, Brenda, now Johnny’s fiancee, who saw something in Johnny, something Johnny didn’t at this time see in himself.
At the end of that lost year, in the motels, Johnny began to look inward, “This is me? This isn’t me,” he recalls today of those dark days in the motel.
One day, about three-and-a-half years ago, Johnny’s oldest sister, Sherry, who works in social services, showed up at his cheap motel room. She brought with her an ultimatum: Either choose one of the three rehab facilities she had in her hand; or be cut out of the family. No contact. No money. Nothing.
“I chose Sunny Acres because it seemed the hardest,” Johnny says today. “I like doing things that are difficult.”
“When I got here, it was cold and rainy, and I thought, ‘Man, I fucked up,’” Johnny laughs in the firewood sales office today. “Dan [DeVaul] was very quiet. I had heard of him, the ‘legend’ of Sunny Acres. He asked questions. I remember Dan asked me about cooking polenta. I could see he was checking me out, to see if I was bullshitting about my cooking experience. I told him several ways to prepare polenta. He seemed like an old cowboy when I first met him.”
When he first came to the Sunny Acres sober living ranch, Johnny was recovering from major ankle fusion surgery. He could not do the manual (and paid) work Sunny Acres residents are required to do.
So, Johnny shadowed the previous client program director, as he administered the facility, and its 40 or so clients. One of DeVaul’s central tenets for Sunny Acres is that the people who live there are in charge of it. Lester is charge of housekeeping. Mike runs the kitchen and meals, along with Jesse. The program manager oversees, is on top of, everything.
When Johnny first arrived at Sunny Acres, a counselor was available to clients of Sunny Acres. It was up to the clients whether to use the free service. Johnny decided to give counseling a try.
“I threw everything on her. The childhood abuse, getting physical with my girlfriend, everything,” he recalls today. “Once a week, for a year, I went to counseling. Best thing I ever did.”
From the start at Sunny Acres, Johnny found himself a confidant of other clients. They shared things with him. Johnny’s a good listener. Johnny has also earned a certificate from the Sober College of Addiction Studies, a one-year program that “strengthened my sobriety,” says Johnny today.
John, the previous program manager left Sunny Acres, and Johnny took over the position.
Today, Johnny Rodriguez is Johnny Everything, a term he decidedly does not embrace.
“It’s a team effort all the way,” he says.
And he is right. Sunny Acres is a non-profit organization that is organized as hell. It works, and it works because the people who live there all pitch in and make it work. There is a lot of detail involved with 40 men -- ex-offenders; people in recovery; homeless -- living and working together in a sober living facility. If Sunny Acres is a team, Johnny is the current head coach.
Johnny shows unabashed affection for “my guys,” the men who live and work at Sunny Acres.
“These are good people,” Johnny says. “Like many of us, they have lost something, or lost their way, or done something wrong. Who hasn’t? But they want to be part of something. They are just looking for a place to call home, just like everybody.”
When you talk to Johnny today, he comes across as a calm, measured, professional manager of a medium-sized company. He explains his day-to-day routine:
“A typical day is funny because there is no such thing! I deal with other people's issues on a daily basis. They can range from from a relapse -- an extremely serious issue, with extremely serious consequences here - to two men not agreeing on what to watch on tv. That can also be a serious issue if you are one of those two men. I try to look all 40 residents in their eyes daily and check in with them and assist them with anything I can.”
Johnny’s immediate plans are to continue studies at Cuesta College in September, en route to a degree in Addiction Studies, then on to bachelor and master degrees. His goal is to be a licensed addiction counselor.
When he talks about getting those degrees, Johnny seems not to be the badass ex-convict, former gang member, but a wide-eyed, soon-to-be college freshman, excited with goals and dreams.
Today, Johnny Rodriguez seems at peace, with himself, with his life. It appears he can handle -- thrive -- living life on life’s terms.
“I think that my brother is helping me get through this life,” Johnny says.
Johnny lives with Brenda, the woman who saw the real Johnny when he did not, and his mother, the one who has loved him since birth, and the woman who really showed him how to cook. In his downtime, Johnny loves to barbecue and watch movies at home with mom and Brenda.
“The best life is the simple life.”