Jerry West was heartbroken when his beloved Australian cattle dog, Whitey, suddenly lost her ability to walk due to cancer in December 2010.
“She seemed okay one day, and the next moment she was dragging her butt on the ground,” says West, 44, a supervisor for a power-line equipment company in Burleson, Texas.
“It was shocking,” he says.
After learning that a doggie wheelchair would cost several hundred dollars and take two weeks to receive, West built his own out of heavy-duty plastic piping and lawnmower wheels in his garage.
Soon, “Whitey was zipping around in her new wheelchair,” he says. “It became like an extension of her body. She lived happily for another two years.”
Whitey’s newfound zest for life prompted West to make wheelchairs free of charge for other dogs paralyzed by car accidents, arthritis and other illnesses. Through his Rolling Dog Project, West has sent approximately 80 wheelchairs to dog owners across the country who can’t afford one.
“I refuse to accept payment from the dog owners because, to me, that’s like blood money,” explains West, who does accept donations from non-recipients, mostly in the form of Home Depot gift cards.
Once West receives a pooch’s measurements via email – whether for a chihuahua or German shepherd – he then builds the wheelchair in his spare time at night or on weekends.
“I do this work because I know for many people, their pet is like a family member,” West adds. “It’s all about giving dogs a new lease on life.”
It’s also saving them.
“Jerry’s extending the lives of pets who otherwise would be put down,” says Janet Anderson, who runs a dog sanctuary in San Angelo, Texas, and has received three of his wheelchairs.
“He’s a godsend for dogs with special needs,” she says.
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine