7 women who devote their lives to the betterment of San Joaquin County
Across the globe women are forging the path to a better world. From spearheading initiatives, to founding local nonprofits, to investing in the wellness of the underserved population in their cities, women everywhere are taking the reins and going the extra mile—rather, the extra several miles—in serving their community. The following pages hold our ode to such extraordinary ladies in our own cities. Join us as we applaud these exceptional individuals and behold the Wonder Women of San Joaquin!
Cecily Ballungay had always known she was going to pursue a career in human services. Right out of college, Cecily joined Pathways, a Center for Human Services in Stanislaus County. Later, she worked with Manteca Pregnancy Help Center, then United Way of Stanislaus County.
With a strong history of nonprofit experience, when Hope Family Shelters in Manteca needed someone to step in as CEO, Cecily was a shoo-in. “The organization was struggling, God bless them,” Cecily recalls. “They entrusted their baby to me, and there was a lot of work to do.”
Out of all of the new programs Cecily helped to create and implement at Hope Family Shelters, her pride and joy has been “Project Hope”, an internship program for mental and behavioral health students. It worked both ways: high-achieving students needed experience in the field, and clients at Hope Family Shelters needed thorough case management.
Before Project Hope, nine percent of clients at Hope Family Shelters were able to settle into a permanent home—after a year of Project Hope, that number boosted to 49 percent.
And if you think she was going to stop there, you don’t know Cecily Ballungay—noticing a need for services aimed specifically at teens, she and her staff decided to pitch the idea of opening a children’s wellness center.
“It’s a lot more difficult to be homeless as a child than it is as an adult,” says Cecily. “We were seeing an uptick in cutting and suicide attempts in May and started looking for community support.” Luckily, the community response was overwhelming: by January 31st, they received a $90,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente and $65,000 in donations to build a children’s wellness center.
Cecily says her favorite part about her job at Hope Ministries is equipping families with the resources to get back on their feet again, especially women. “I’m motivated from some of my struggles, so to see these women at the Shelter learning that they have value, and watching their self-esteem build… It’s a joy.”
Cecily has been recognized for so many of her accomplishments, but her joy comes not from recognition, but from connection to her clients. “I’m truly blessed to be able to take advantage of the gifts that God has given me and will continue to use them to serve my community.”
To say that Jasmine Leek has a heart for Stockton is an understatement. A native Stocktonian, Jasmine went to college at UOP, left for a few years, and then boomeranged back home to serve the community she knew best by co-founding and managing the downtown Stockton nonprofit Third City Coalition.
“At Third City, our focus is civic innovation and urban sustainability,” says Jasmine. “We’re trying to understand how Stockton can develop itself as a city in a sustainable way, and how we can infuse a culture of innovation through that process.”
From serving as a launchpad for ideas, to providing startup businesses with the resources needed to get off the ground, to working with the local government to implement sustainable development (that won’t displace current residents), Jasmine and her team at Third City Coalition seek to help Stockton rise to its true potential.
“The people I work with all deeply care about this place. There is something special about Stockton—it’s almost a magnetic force,” explains Jasmine. “We may not have all of those long-standing things other communities have, but there’s a real opportunity to build and create those here.”
Apart from Third City, Jasmine sports a laundry list of local organizations with which she’s worked to see Stockton’s betterment. She’s currently treasurer of Community Medical Center, policy director for Stockton Younger Women’s Task Force, sits on several city commissions, and previously served as Executive Director of Huddle, the downtown Stockton coworking space.
“I enjoy the challenge that Stockton presents,” states Jasmine. “I’ve never really liked the consumer mentality; I enjoy building and I love to create.”
Moreover, she still has time to manage her own business as an award-winning Communications Consultant, offering up her skills in advertising, public relations, and a myriad of other services to local businesses. “I’m genre-defying,” laughs Jasmine. “I roll up my sleeves and do whatever needs to be done.”
Keep an eye out for (or join in on) the future efforts of Jasmine and the team at Third City, including but not limited to: a collective impact project in downtown and South Stockton, a community-led walking tour called “Jane’s Walk”, and much more. As Jasmine aptly puts it, why not try to do what you can, when you can?
For some people, their life’s purpose is clear even in childhood. Since she was seven years old, Julie Damron always knew she’d be working with animals, from tending to injured animals in her neighborhood, to working at a veterinary clinic in high school, to eventually graduating from UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.
“Animals are a source of unconditional love and they have no choice in what happens to them—we’re responsible for their care,” explains Julie. “How a community treats their animals speaks huge volumes about the community in general.”
As the Medical Director of the Stockton Emergency Veterinary Clinic and with 22 years of experience under her belt, Julie boasts a long resume of community engagement: She’s a co-founder of the Delta Veterinary Medical Association, she sits on the board of the Delta Humane Society, writes a pet column for The Lodi Sentinel, and is the 2017-2018 UC Davis Don Low Fellow in emergency and critical care.
She’s also the founder of Loving Tails, a vaccine clinic that works with the students of the Carrington Veterinary Program to vaccinate the pets of the homeless once a month throughout the county. “We’ll vaccinate between 30-40 animals at each clinic. We also provide flea control, dog food, leashes—and it’s all free,” says Julie. In the future, she hopes to be able to start microchipping animals at the clinics and provide free vouchers for spaying and neutering.
While it’s clear she has a heart for animals, Julie’s an advocate for helping the humans of our county, too: Since 2017 Julie’s had her own weekly radio show on “The Voice of Stockton” that highlights noteworthy people and organizations around the city and beyond. She’s a part of the hunger task force as well as the homeless task force. She’s the President of the Stockton Host Lions, incoming Secretary for The Rotary Club of Lodi, and sits on the board of United Way and the Emergency Food Bank.
“Community service is really important to me,” says Julie. “I fight for people, creatures, and animals that have no voice.”
There’s no doubt about it, Julie Damron is into everything. But, no matter how many additional activities and organizations she’s involved in, Julie will always love being an Emergency Veterinarian, doing exactly what she did as a child around the neighborhood. “I love working in Emergency,” she says. “When animals are in a crisis, I love being there to help. It’s the perfect roll for me.”
It was 2007 when Kelly’s husband was deployed to Iraq, along with 20,000 other American soldiers during “the surge”. Even after her husband returned from his 15 month deployment, the experience left a reverberating impact on their lives.
“It took about six years for us to process through our feelings,” remembers Kelly. “Eventually we understood that there’s a growing need to give back to people who’ve been through similar experiences and who are having trouble assimilating back to civilian life.”
Of the many organizations that recognize the difficult task veterans face when assimilating back into civilian life, Kelly became involved with Team Red White & Blue (RWB), a national nonprofit with over 150,000 members and a mission to enrich veteran’s lives through engaging them in physical and social activity. “It’s important because after years of military service, coming back can seem foreign,” explains Kelly. “We try to provide an opportunity for people to reintegrate into their community and find their rhythm again.”
With over 200 Team RWB chapters across the country, Kelly has been involved in leading the Stockton chapter since 2017. As Chapter Captain, Kelly oversees and organizes events such as Red, White, & Bluegrass, as well as the annual Stockton Veteran’s week. In 2018 her team worked together with UOP to put on a movie screening of “Thank You For Your Service”, and even got the author of the book the film was based on to fly out and be a part of the event. “We had food, drinks, and a panel discussion about what it means to be a veteran and how to navigate those waters,” Kelly says.
Apart from her work with Team RWB, Kelly is a member of the Eleanor Project that supports the personal and professional advancement of women. She also works with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to support military and veteran caregivers—earlier this year, Kelly was honored to be accepted to their highly selective fellowship program. As a California Dole Fellow, Kelly will work with state and local representatives and advocate on behalf of military and veteran caregivers.
“I am so happy that I am fortunate enough to do this work,” concludes Kelly. “Helping veterans and guiding them toward resources, benefits, or anything that can help this population out… It’s where I found my passion.”
Ask around about Patsy Querantes, and the phrase “unsung hero” is bound to crop up. Not only is Patsy a leader in her career at NuStar Energy but also in the Stockton community at large; she’s involved in everything from United Cerebral Palsy, to the Stockton Boys and Girls Club, to United Way.
“To me my home is not just my house, it’s my community,” says Patsy. “I have a strong desire to make the community better, not just for myself but for all of us.”
Apart from the numerous committees she sits on, Patsy also engages in annual clean ups throughout the city. Whether it’s California coastal cleanup or city-beautification, you can bet that Patsy Querantes will be there.
But it’s not enough that she’s racking up serious volunteer hours—she encourages others to get involved as well. At NuStar Energy, Patsy is President of the Volunteer Council for the Western Region. “I’m kind of the cheerleader, if you will,” she laughs. “I talk daily on morning calls to give inspiration and keep employees engaged with their communities.”
When the council first began, they had 100 employees on the West Coast logging only 1,200 hours. In 2018, they logged over 8,000.
While her efforts are far reaching, she also makes time for the local community service closest to her heart. Twelve years ago, she began leading a group of volunteers to place flags on headstones at Cherokee Memorial. “I started that when my father passed away; he was a World War II veteran,” explains Patsy. “We’re the only ‘outsider’ volunteers they’ve let do something like this in 50 years, so we feel honored to be able to continue to do it year after year.”
Whether she’s making waves in the male-dominated petroleum industry, serving as Loaned Executive and Board Member for United Way, or collecting school supplies for TLC School for Homeless Children, Patsy’s drive to serve her community is truly a thing to behold. “I’ve been married for 40 years and have one daughter with four amazing grandchildren—I hope to make my community better for them. I want my family to look back at the work I’ve done and be proud.”
Paula Sheil’s a woman with a reputation to uphold. Whether she’s schooling San Joaquin Delta College students on the subtleties of poetry, managing her own publishing house and writing center, or supporting local grassroots organizations, Paula’s rocking Doc Martens, a silvery mane, and an unwavering passion for Stockton.
A professor at San Joaquin Delta College and President and founder of her own nonprofit, it’s hard to imagine that Paula has time for much else, so I ask her what inspires her to be so involved in her community.
“Well,” she says, “I guess I could be knitting.”
At her core, Paula’s a writer. She was a journalist for The Record for 10 years. She was sought out by New York Times for her op-ed piece about Stockton’s bankruptcy. And if you ask her, she’ll tell you she’s got a paper trail long enough to wrap around the planet—a couple of times.
“We already have some writing champions in our history: Leonard Gardener, Maxine Hong Kingston… We have a community of story tellers and we have great literary ‘dirt’ from which we can grow stories,” explains Paula. “We have communities speaking a variety of languages from diverse experiences. Storytelling is in our future. It’s the fabric of all our people.”
An advocate for increasing Stockton’s literacy on a national scale, Paula spearheaded the founding of The Write Place, a writing center that offers classes and workshops on bookmaking, letter press printing, and creative writing.
“If you pull all those threads through the tapestry of my life, this will be the legacy: having a writing center here in Stockton that my grandchildren and great grandchildren can come to.”
Paula is making waves in her community through other avenues as well: she’s an inseparable part of the maker’s movement in downtown Stockton, she’s worked with the Stockton Arts Commission, and is currently Vice President of the Stockton Arts Foundation. She’s also an advocate of performing arts, often involved with the San Joaquin Delta College theatre program.
“Because I was raised in the arts, I discovered how important performance was to my life. I like the team-building of a show,” explains Paula. “Apply that to community service, Stockton’s an open field for creativity. To create something that will last, you have to root it in the community.”
Some people might think that life ends at retirement, but Sharon Benninger knows the truth is quite the opposite. It was 18 years ago that Sharon and 12 of her friends, whom she refers to as her “band of angels”, decided they wanted to help raise money for a hospice house for Hospice of San Joaquin, and to educate the community about hospice care.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Sharon laughs, “but Barbara Tognoli encouraged us to form an auxiliary that would raise money. So we got tea, champagne, sandwiches, and pastries and we set pretty tables.”
For that first English Tea & Champagne event put on by their new Butterfly Auxiliary, 100 people showed up in support. Today, the event is an annual fundraiser that has raised thousands of dollars for Hospice of San Joaquin.
Ever hear of “Sip and Stroll”? Sharon, her neighbor Shirley Luke, and her band of angels founded that, too. They now have three more Butterfly Auxiliaries in Lodi, Tracy, and Manteca, and together they’ve raised over a million dollars for the Hospice of San Joaquin.
“You get a passion and calling for something, and you may doubt yourself, but you just have to push through. You have to believe you can make a difference,” says Sharon.
And Sharon’s work hasn’t stopped at Hospice of San Joaquin: she’s a board member of the Gospel Center Rescue Mission and supports the Haven of Peace. What’s more, in 2017 Sharon, Chinu Mehdi, and her daughter, Meela, founded the “Uplift All Foundation”, a nonprofit with the goal of providing a nurturing environment for Stockton’s homeless and in-need population through offering classes and workshops at St. Mary’s Dining Hall.
“Our volunteers teach life skills to help foster self-worth and sufficiency so they can reintegrate into our community,” explains Sharon “Each teacher who comes here feels rewarded in their hearts.”
The Uplift All foundation is always looking for new teachers to come and work with the homeless at St. Mary’s, where they hold classes Tuesday through Thursday. “It makes me feel so happy to see them smiling, laughing, and feeling loved and valued,” says Sharon. “It’s a privilege to be a part of their lives.”
In the end, Sharon believes life isn’t about what we accomplish, it’s about what we leave behind that honors God. Her advice? “Follow your passion, because we can all be Wonder Women and Wonder Men.”