Second ‘Loretta Swit and Friends’ gala raises funds to give abused, unwanted pets a positive ‘second act’


When the volunteers at Ayla’s Acres first met Lucky, the 4-year-old dog’s life had been anything but.

Abused by his former owners, Lucky was aloof and anxious. The smell of cigarettes and alcohol were particular triggers for the Labrador mix. But after intensive training and positive reinforcement from Ayla’s Acres volunteers, Lucky lived up to his name, finding a forever home with a loving owner.

“Lucky embodies everything we do at Ayla’s Acres,” marketing director Hampton Ryan told attendees at Friday’s “Loretta Swit and Friends” gala to benefit the no-kill animal rescue. “F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ Ayla’s Acres works tirelessly to prove him wrong by making sure animals get the second act they deserve.”

Lucky’s story was just one of the many uplifting stories shared at last week’s gala, which was in a sense a “second act” of its own. Following the success of last year’s “M*A*S*H Gala” featuring Loretta Swit and her fellow M*A*S*H castmates, Swit returned to Ponte Vedra Beach to host another benefit for Ayla’s Acres. Featuring a cocktail reception, dinner, entertainment and live and silent auctions, the benefit sought to raise funds to create “Peter’s Friends,” a 17.5-acre animal resource center that will provide animal rescue, adoption, education and spaying/neutering services in St. Johns County.

The need for such services, First Coast New Anchor and emcee Jessica Clark said, is great.

“What you’re doing,” Clark said, “is enabling people to take care of animals who don’t have voices of their own.”

Ayla’s Acres Director Fran Charlson agreed, noting that each day the animal rescue organization receives 10 to 20 calls from people looking to surrender animals. Some confess their plan to leave them by the side of the road, or even shoot their unwanted pets.

“I had a career in the biotech industry – now my life is about rescue,” Charlson told gala attendees. “We can’t do this work without you.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Swit, the evening’s special guest of honor and a lifelong animal activist.

“Thank you all for loving Ayla’s Acres as much as I do,” Swit said. “I just love you all for being here with us tonight.”

In addition to showing a video of a Christmas special she taped with Bob Hope, Swit shared a number of stories demonstrating the power of animals to help and heal.

“What our animals do for us is incalculable,” Swit said. “They give us unconditional love, which unhappily we human animals are incapable of. But they don’t stop giving.”

Also sharing their gratitude with gala attendees were actors Gregory Harrison and his wife, Randi Oakes, who participated in a live Skype session with the audience after airline cancellations and delays prevented them from attending in person.

“We love Ayla’s Acres and animals in general,” said Harrison, introducing guests to the couple’s cats, Scout and Dooby. “We wish we could be there with you.”

The gala also saw the presentation of Ayla’s Acres’ “Compassion in Action Award” to volunteer Amy Lohman, who specializes in providing foster care services to senior and hospice dogs. In accepting the award, Lohman urged guests to consider offering a home to an older pet.

“Please think about taking in an older dog,” she said. “Everyone loves puppies, but older dogs love everyone. It’s nice to give them a special final chapter in their lives.”