Meet eight Sacramentans who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty as they give back to the community.

Volunteering is good for the soul. As a growing body of research has found in recent years, it also is good for the mind and body. “It’s the whole wellness thing,” says Kathy Chow of Hands On Sacramento, which functions as a matchmaker between a database of some 3,500 local volunteers and 350 local agencies.

The following people, who donate their time and efforts to a variety of charitable organizations, know firsthand the benefits of hands-on volunteer work. They’re in the trenches, working on the front lines against poverty, blight, disease and despair, making our community shine—and their own hearts sing.

Bernice Bennett, 66

Liberty Ministries

Bernice Bennett grew up in Sacramento near the railroad tracks, and the hobos passing through often wound up on her family’s doorstep. “My mother never turned anybody away to feed,” she recalls.

Decades later, Bennett upholds that legacy, helping run a weekly food giveaway program at Liberty Ministries, a small church on Marysville Boulevard near Rio Linda.

“I like helping people—always have,” says Bennett, who worked at the Blue Diamond Growers plant in midtown for 40 years before retiring three years ago.

With both knees in need of replacement surgery, Bennett walks with a limp. But that doesn’t keep her off her feet the 15 hours or more a week she spends with Manna Food Bank, which gives away at least 200 bags of groceries every Thursday morning.

Bennett makes many of the midweek runs to collect canned goods, fresh produce and other items from California Emergency Foodlink and Senior Gleaners, and supervises a dozen or more volunteers as they pack up the bags and hand them out on distribution day. She also maintains the monthly paperwork.

Despite her chronic pain and an ailing husband at home, Bennett says her time at the food bank helps her keep things in perspective. “You think you’ve got problems,” she says. “Someone has always got it worse.”

Chris Cullen, 42

American River Parkway Foundation

Mile 10 along the American River Parkway is particularly scenic, especially once the empty bottles and cigarette butts have been removed. The public can thank Sacramento real estate agent Chris Cullen for that.

Cullen has cleaned up the south bank of the American River near Watt Avenue since 2004 as a volunteer “mile steward” for the American River Parkway Foundation. Growing up nearby, he took part in his first organized river cleanup campaign when he was 15. “As we saw how much people litter [out here], I just became appalled,” he recalls.

Litter detail can be as simple as a sweep along the trail with his young sons and dog in tow or as ambitious as the massive barbecues Cullen hosts twice a year during larger cleanup campaigns. One Saturday in September, he brought out 95 helpers to the river, put them to work and then fed them.

Since January, Cullen also has been tending to six newly planted valley oaks in a scrubby grove along his mile. He waters the young trees weekly, giving each its requisite dose of 10 gallons.

“As a responsible business [owner] in the community, you’ve got to choose something,” Cullen says. “It’s nice to choose something that’s close to your home and to your heart.”

Becky Maclay, 50

Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary

At first, Becky Maclay thought she was doing right by the cats living behind her mother’s apartment complex. But after feeding them for six months, she discovered another problem besides homelessness and hunger: kittens.

“We realized . . .  that we needed to stop the [breeding] cycle,” Maclay recalls.

That, in short, is how she became a cat trapper. Maclay and her mom eventually rounded up two dozen cats from that particular colony, paid to have them fixed and found homes for many of them.

When her mother died six years ago, Maclay sought help from Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary with the rest of the colony. Volunteers at the East Sacramento “no-kill” pet-adoption facility, in turn, taught Maclay proper trapping techniques. She has been a prolific part of the team ever since.

Maclay works full time at Alta California Regional Center and rounds up strays on evenings and weekends. Once the cats are caught and spayed or neutered, Maclay helps provide foster care to ready them for adoption. Not all are feral. Many are simply abandoned and scared.

The volunteer work is not without its challenges. The toughest part? “Hearing all the problems without having enough help,” she says.

Carlos Owings, 15

Immaculate Conception Parish

Carlos Owings may be a teenager, but his weekends aren’t spent sleeping in. He arrives at his South Sacramento church by 8 o’clock every Sunday morning to help lead religious education classes for young people.

“I just like helping,” says Owings, a sophomore at Cristo Rey High School, a Catholic college preparatory campus near Fruitridge Road. “It’s better than being at home and doing absolutely nothing.”

Owings helps prepare materials for the various classes known as Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, or CCD, and works one-on-one with students. A favorite duty: helping teach kindergartners how to pray.

Cristo Rey requires that all sophomores complete 10 hours of community service a year, in addition to the five days a month students spend interning with local businesses. This is Owings’ second year interning at Sutter Health. The eight-hour shifts, he says, have taught him office skills and the importance of respecting authority.

Campus minister Susan Greene calls Owings a “self-deprecating” student who embodies community spirit. He has stepped forward two years in a row to be on Cristo Rey’s Leadership Council, helping the student organization take shape on the startup campus.

“Volunteering, for Carlos, is so natural,” Greene says. “It’s very much a part of who he is.”

Aiyana Pearson, 57

Women’s Wisdom Project

Before retiring from the state, Aiyana Pearson contributed money every month to the United Way. But the past year she has spent as a volunteer art teacher in Oak Park has been immeasurably more rewarding.

“It’s kind of weird,” says Pearson of her work with the Women’s Wisdom Project, run by Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. “I know I’m helping, but they’re helping me. I feel more worthwhile.”

The program focuses on the “healing power of art.” Participants drop in for studio sessions throughout the week. Hot lunches and counseling are available. Pearson volunteers in the fabric art studio Thursday mornings and in the clay studio Thursday afternoons.

“Sometimes, they don’t want to do clay, and we sit and talk,” she says of the dozen or more women who attend the classes. “I feel like it’s also a mentorship, being another pair of ears.”

Pearson has honed her own art skills in the year she has spent with the Women’s Wisdom Project. Fairly new to ceramic sculpture, she earned a Best in Show award at the 2008 California State Fair. She also placed first this year in the KVIE Art Auction’s sculpture category.

Pam Saltenberger, 64

Wonder Inc.

As CEO of the local Girl Scout council, Pam Saltenberger helps shape the lives of 30,000 girls across the region. But one in particular has stolen her heart: Sam.

Saltenberger has mentored the sixth grader for nearly two years through Wonder Inc., a nonprofit that pairs adults with children in foster care. The two get together a couple of times a month, with an emphasis on having fun: going out for breakfast, seeing Kung Fu Panda at the movies or walking the dog. In August, they attended a weekend camp in the Sierra for children in foster care.

“There’s this dimension now of a child who’s just bringing great joy to my life,” says Saltenberger, who has no children of her own. “I hope she’s in my life forever.”

Last year, Sam switched homes (and schools) five times. Saltenberger realizes she is one of the few constants in the preteen’s life and takes her role seriously. While traveling in Europe, she even checked in on Sam from a pay phone in Prague when she learned about yet another relocation.

“You will find me wherever I am,” Sam is fond of telling her. And Saltenberger is fond of repeating the line.

Leonard Williams, 46

Prince Hall Grand Lodge No. 87

In recent years, Leonard Williams has washed cars to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief, bought Christmas gifts for poor families and lectured young people on the importance of pride and self-worth. But he is rarely happier than when he’s washing dishes at Loaves & Fishes’ soup kitchen.

He thanks everyone when they clear their trays. “Seeing the faces,” he says. “It just lights them up.”

Williams’ formal title is Worshipful Master of one of the Sacramento area’s three chapters, or lodges, of the Prince Hall Free and Accepted Masons. The fraternal order, a historically African American branch of the Freemasons, is a “system of morality” that is steeped in community service. Williams’ lodge, which has about 200 members, volunteers regularly at Loaves & Fishes and takes part every year in the U.S. Postal Service’s Operation Santa Claus.

“We’re charged with being a positive example,” says Williams, who works in mortgage and real estate and whose father and grandfather were members of the Prince Hall Freemasons.

“A lot of people don’t understand that assisting in the community is not about it being a chore,” he says. “You cannot give joy without being affected.”

Penn Yee, 75

Sacramento Police Department

Penn Yee is spending her retirement years patrolling South Sacramento in a PT Cruiser police car, assisting sworn officers at DUI checkpoints and helping manage traffic at some of the city’s biggest public events.

“I stayed home and took care of business for a while,” says Yee, who retired from the University of California in 1991. “Then it was time to do something with my spare time.”

Yee became a Sacramento Police Department volunteer in 1997, spending several years writing up nonemergency reports. When the agency launched Volunteers in Police Service, or VIPS, in 2003, she was among the first to go through the
30-hour academy.

“Basically, we act like an extra set of eyes and ears for the police department,” she says. “I think we’re doing a service that a lot of people are not aware of.”

Yee wears a uniform but doesn’t carry a weapon. She is never directly involved in the pursuit or apprehension of a suspect. She patrols with a fellow volunteer and keeps in touch with police dispatchers via radio. While tough to measure, Yee likes to think that volunteers like her help serve as a deterrent to crime.