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North Bay Spirit Award winner John Dennison epitomizes the virtue of volunteering

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North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Imagine if every town or neighborhood — better yet, every block — was home to someone like John Dennison.

One day the lanky, thoughtful and mellow retired warehouseman and trucker notices that weeds, brambles or branches are choking the sidewalk along a main drag in his neck of Santa Rosa. Within a day or two, if not sooner, he’s pulling tools from the back of his pickup and cutting back the offending overgrowth.

As he spruces up the public right-of-way, the 80-year-old Dennison is likely just warming up for another full day of volunteer service to his community. His decades of relentless post-retirement work on multiple fronts now bring him honors as this month’s North Bay Spirit Award winner, where The Press Democrat and Comcast recognize individuals who come up with creative solutions to community problems, and selflessly devote themselves to the cause.

“I don’t know if the guy ever sleeps,” said admirer Bill Montgomery, a former Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks official who volunteers alongside Dennison at the city’s original graveyard.

There Dennison regularly mends headstones, whacks weeds and toils at myriad other tasks that keep the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery vital and inviting. He does it quietly, exhibiting no need for or interest in praise or acknowledgment.

“He’s so self-effacing,” said Montgomery, who acts as volunteer coordinator and city liaison for the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Preservation Committee.

“He never toots his horn, he never brags about anything. You usually have to pry it out of him.”

Limiting the time that Dennison can dedicate to the historic cemetery near the mansions of McDonald Avenue and the Town & Country Shopping Center is his devotion to feeding people who rely on two busy Sonoma County pantries. That commitment alone translates into about 30 hours a week of unpaid work.

Dennison tried earlier this year to retire from Santa Rosa’s six-day-a-week F.I.S.H. (Friends In Service Here) pantry. His fellow volunteers threw him a farewell party and everything, complete with cake and gifts.

Dennison declared at the time that he’d read more and putter about at home with the time freed up by no longer pitching in to get groceries to families and individuals unable to keep food on the table all month.

Well, that lasted a day or two.

Dependable, diligent

“He came back, and thank God he did,” rejoiced Kaarin Lee, volunteer director of F.I.S.H. She said Dennison isn’t only dependable and diligent, but he brings to the grassroots food pantry on McBride Lane an invaluable calmness and a gift for soothing tension and resolving problems.

When a difficulty arises in the operation, Lee said, “the first person I look to is John. He weighs things. He treats people with respect. He always has a sensible answer.

“He’s just an unbelievable person.”

For most of the past 30 years, both Dennison and his wife, Kathy, a retired Memorial Hospital medical transcriber, have served as pioneer volunteers of Food for Thought, the Forestville-based nutritional service that provides healthy food at no cost to people dealing with HIV/AIDS and other serious illnesses.

Kathy Dennison coordinates with Food for Thought clients by phone once a week. Several times weekly, her husband drives hither and yon picking up food donated by supermarkets or gathered by volunteers who stand outside of grocery stores and fill collection bins.

North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

How highly does Food for Thought value the Dennisons, the nonprofit’s longest serving volunteers? It named its top volunteer award for them.

“They’re just giving,” Ron Karp, the food bank’s executive director, said of both the Dennisons. “Since the very beginning, they’ve been incredibly dedicated to this organization. And they don’t want anything in return.”

Karp said John Dennison has given up countless Saturdays to set up early for a food drive at one or more supermarkets, offer support throughout the day and toward evening deliver the collected food to the pantry in Forestville.

Many Sundays, both John and Kathy Dennison spent hours inventorying and shelving the donated foods.

John Dennison, director Karp said, “has probably retired from volunteering here about five different times.” But he can’t stay away.

Dennison was a Southern Californian before he and his wife brought their family to Santa Rosa in 1972. He worked a full, physical career as a long-distance driver for moving and storage companies and as a furniture store warehouseman.

Helped out soccer league

As he recalls, his first act of volunteering involved becoming active in the Santa Rosa soccer league that his sons, Jim and Steve, played in long ago. He also has a daughter, Caroly.

Though Dennison is not a military veteran — “I fell right between every conflict we had,” he said — he’s always appreciated those who served their country in uniform.

In the mid-1980s, a friend named Ken Kushner, who’d sustained disabling wounds in combat in Vietnam, asked if he’d help handle membership duties in the newly founded Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 223. Dennison was happy to do it.

And when Kushner, a highly decorated former U.S. Army Green Beret, volunteered to direct the F.I.S.H. pantry in the early 1990s, Dennison signed up to work alongside him and to collect and dispense food to people in need.

It was Dennison’s wife who was first drawn to the mission of a second food pantry, Food for Thought, created to get nutrition to Sonoma County people who live with HIV or AIDS.

In addition, he’s a stalwart of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, having initially volunteered to adopt and maintain two gravesites. That commitment led to his cemetery work becoming a major avocation: he’s essential to the docent-led graveyard tours, the annual fundraising historical vignettes performed at graves and the preservation committee’s trusty Tombstone Trio maintenance-and-repair team.

Beyond all that, Dennison is a marvel to many of his neighbors in the portion of southeast Santa Rosa traversed by Hoen and Yulupa avenues, Bennett Valley Road and Bethards Drive.

Dennison didn’t have to be persuaded to join the volunteer neighborhood beautification group, Bennett Valley Vision. Two Saturdays a year, city crews coordinate with the neighbors who gather in planted median strips and along sidewalks and in vacant lots to pull or cut weeds, trim trees, plant flowers and spread mulch.

But Dennison doesn’t wait for the communal spring-and-fall work days. Throughout the year, he acts as the neighborhood’s volunteer public-spaces landscaper, especially along heavily tread Yulupa Avenue.

Extraordinarily caring

In the eyes of Pat Mai, who co-founded Bennett Valley Vision 16 years ago with the late Mary Traverso, Dennison is extraordinarily caring, proficient and resourceful — a multi-talented rarity.

“He’s willing to do anything,” Mai said, “and he knows how to do it!”

“Sometimes people want to help, but they don’t know what to do. He just gets in there and does it: Step 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.”

The B.V. Vision co-founder added about Dennison: “I’m not sure what would have done without him ... he’s an everyday hero.”

For Dennison, helping to keep his neighborhood looking sharp is a matter of pride. When weeds grow high along a sidewalk, he said, it “reflects poorly on the city.”

Dennison pitches in to keep his part of town neat for the same reason he helps to maintain the Rural Cemetery and to keep essential nutrition flowing freely to the people who rely on F.I.S.H. and Food for Thought.

“It’s just being part of the community,” he said. He’s certain that the volunteer work keeps him active.

And it makes him feel good.

“Helping other people, it helps you,” he said. “It’s a two-way street.”

For a few moments in their living room, Dennison and his wife pondered what he might do with his time were he not volunteering for the good of the community pretty much all-day every day.

They blanked.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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