Respect 90 Volunteer Spotlight | July 2018

July 2, 2018

By Respect 90 Foundation | Volunteer Spotlight

Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa Bay, Chicago, Mesa, Arizona or Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.

Jim Young & George Johnson | Cardon Children’s Medical Center (Mesa, Arizona)


At the Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa, Arizona, George Johnson is indeed, as his pal Jim Young says, a rock star.  Although there are times when George just can’t hold his tongue.

“I told them when we first started volunteering here, if you are getting George Johnson, you are just going to have live with the licks,” said Young.

And everything else that comes along with having a 108-pound, golden-doodle, chocolate lab mix with a surname  making rounds, visiting patients and staff.

Like hugs, smiles, laughs, and cries.

George and Jim, who retired from his position as a leadership training executive in 2014, have been creating memories at Cardon going on three years. They also bring happiness to at-risk elementary school students and at several extended life facilities.

“People ask how do you train dogs to do that?” says Young.  “You don’t. They just have these instincts.

“We go into the waiting room up on the second floor – the surgery waiting room – and there is a lot of stress in there,” explains Young. “George will go in and greet every person. On occasion he will pick out someone who is really, really stressed, he will go over and just put his big ol’ head right in their lap. He just knows.”

Says Laura Robertson, CEO of Cardon Children’s Medical Center and Banner Desert Medical Center: “The positive impact that Jim and George Johnson make on our patients and their families, and even our own staff members, is profound and unmistakable. Together, they provide comfort and support during a difficult time, when patients sometimes feel defeated and alone. Almost instantly, when Jim and George Johnson round a corner or enter a patient’s room, you can see spirits lift, smiles and even laughter – a much-needed distraction for so many. Ultimately, Jim and George Johnson represent Banner’s mission: making our patients’ healthcare experience easier, so their lives are better.”

And no one does it better.

“We were on the second floor and there had been a little boy who had drowned. We got there just 30 or 40 minutes after he had passed away. The nurses were just all beside themselves, so upset. They needed a little bit of love. So, we went and visited with all the nurses and like usual they got down on the floor and hugged him. Then we went into the playroom on that floor and the father of the little boy and the younger brother were there. The brother comes over and plays with George, he was young enough where he didn’t know what’s going on. Of course, the dad is very distraught and we just exchanged a few pleasant words. Then all at once the door opened and the grandmother comes in and it was at her house that the little boy had drowned, he had gotten out and she didn’t know he had gotten out and gotten loose. You could plainly see how physically and emotionally shaken she was. George saw the state she was in and he actually pulled me across the room to get to this woman. I choke up when I think about it.  She was talking to the father and she wasn’t really paying attention to George and he was just around her, rubbing against her. Finally, she recognized that she was going to have to pet him and she reaches down and starts loving on him and starts crying. It really had an impact on me. I mean you can get a lot of grief therapy, but that’s about as good as it gets.”

And while George Johnson has great therapeutic instincts, like all therapy dogs, he also has had some intensive preparation.  There is six weeks of training to get certified nationally and another six-week program to get enter the hospital’s program.

George also has something else going for him.

“He’s Johnson because my wife Nancy’s maiden name was Johnson,” says Young. “When we first got him all he wanted to do was eat and play. I said to me wife, he’s just like my brother-in-law (Nancy’s brother). He must be a Johnson.  George came from the fact that we brought him home around the same time as the birth of Prince George (the son of Prince William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge who born on July 22, 2013.)

George Johnson even has his own Cardon Medical Center trading cards which are distributed throughout the hospital where George and Jim have visited at least once a week for the past 2-1/2 years. Not surprisingly, the cards are a hot item.

“There was a young lady, probably around 8-9 years old who was hospitalized for a serious illness. She was also deaf, I assumed from birth because she was proficient using sign language. As we entered the room at the invitation of her mother, the girl was leery of George because of his size. She started to cry and backed up as far as she could to the head of the bed. Her mother quickly went to her and moved in behind her to hold her close.  I explained to her that George responds to hand signals such as sit, lay down, go round and round, roll over and bow. I quickly showed her the hand signals we use and she showed her daughter. Slowly she sat up in the bed and gave George the hand signal to sit. Much to her delight, George immediately sat down. The girl squealed with delight because of her ability to communicate with George. She went through his whole repertoire of skills. George sat, rolled over, laid down, bowed, rolled over, went round and round several times at her command. He seemed to know that he was performing.”

It was a chance meeting at Home Depot where George’s career began to take form. Jim and Nancy met a woman with a therapy dog among the aisles of hardware. Like Nancy, the woman was a teacher who, along with her dog, served at risk children in a program called Gabriel’s Angels at a nearby elementary school.

As they drove home, Nancy suggested to Jim that George- still a puppy at that point-  could fill that role once he got older (therapy dogs must be at least two years old.)

Not only was George a perfect fit, so was his partner. Jim’s career background along with his patient, authentic demeanor were just what George needed.

A West Virginia native, Jim began his career in the ministry and balanced a successful real estate career before he began focusing on the training side. He wrote a book called Communicating with Values and built a training company that he sold in 2008.

He soon went to work for the Williams Institute for Ethics and Management as Vice President of Training Development stressing ethical decision making. The highlight? He put together a leadership plan for the Sergeant of Arms for the U.S. Senate.

To top it off, he is a Cubs fans and former usher at Cubs spring training games.

“Probably one of our most remarkable contacts we have had was with Audrey Hughes and her father Ira. When we met them, Ira was pulling Audrey around the halls of Cardon’s in a wagon.  Audrey was doing an extended stay at Cardon’s for treatment for cancer.  She was a real pistol and lots of fun and playful. She and George became friends immediately. The weeks and months following their meeting was not good for Audrey. Unfortunately, as hard as she fought, she lost her battle with cancer on September 29, 2017. People who knew her still talk about how wonderful she was and the joy she brought to so many people.

George and I attended a Celebration of Life Ceremony for Audrey. It was a fantastic celebration appropriate for such a beautiful, wonderful child. As the Celebration came to a close, it was announced to the group that if anyone needed some comfort and encouragement that there was a dog whose name is George Johnson sitting in the back with a “Free Hugs” sign around his neck. He enjoyed every hug. I think he was able to provide some comfort to those who attended and I know Audrey was very happy the George was there to show love to her friends and family. While our encounter with Audrey was brief, she captured our hearts. We will never forget her.”

While the pair has positively impacted the lives of hundreds and hundreds of deserving children and adults, Jim says it is he who is the biggest winner. “The doctors, nurses, technicians and other medical and non-medical staff and all love George Johnson, but the blessing is mine.  I’m the one who really gets the benefit of this.”

– Rick Vaughn  |  Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation

Cardon Children's Medical Center

Click here for more information on Cardon Children’s Medical Center.