Celebrity actors, whether onscreen or off, tend to loom large in our collective psyche. Almost accidentally, they inherit the power to influence, to inspire. Here, however, are three stars who richly deserve our regard. Using their clout and their resources, year after year they hunker down and work hard on critical issues that live deep in their hearts. Now that's inspiring.

Credits: Parenthood, Philadelphia, Elf
Supports: Heifer International

Mary Steenburgen
How did you become passionate about helping those in need?
I learned about Heifer through Bill and Hillary Clinton, who have been some of my best friends for 30-plus years. I presented Hillary with a goat for her birthday at the White House. It was a symbolic gift, of course, that Heifer [then] delivered to someone else.

Heifer is a nonpartisan organization that goes into areas all over the world where there's poverty, including the United States, and gives pairs of livestock. But before they do, they train the people to care for the animals and help improve the local ecosystem. Once the recipients are feeding themselves and start selling the milk or eggs, they agree to pay the gift forward, or pass animals on to someone else. As a result, the whole community changes—often to an amazing degree.

Why does this matter to you?
I didn't grow up wealthy. My father was a freight-train conductor who had numerous heart attacks, which meant he was out of work for years at a time. So there were fears about losing our home or not having enough to eat. Unexpectedly, life has given me so much. I couldn't live this way if I didn't share it.

What have you learned from Heifer?
People are willing to work very hard to make a difference in their own lives. We think of ourselves as being benevolent. But people do meet you. With Heifer, it's very much a community project. People work hard to meet all the requirements. It's not one-way.

"It's very humbling how little it takes to lift someone out of poverty. It's often as simple as having some decent nutrition, some protein, or clean water."

How can people help?
Go to www.heifer.org and you'll see that small donations can make a difference. I encourage my friends, when they have to buy bar mitzvah presents or graduation or holiday gifts, to consider giving a pair of water buffalo or some chickens. Kids especially are really moved by this. It's a way of teaching them to reach beyond themselves—and it often inspires them to learn more about the place where their animals end up.

What's your highest goal, related to this work?
In a country that can be very obsessed with the material, I would hope that we teach our children the value of service—and that we make them aware of the truth of human existence all over the world.

Credits: Varsity Blues, Outside Providence
Supports: Environmental Media Association (EMA)

Amy Smart
How did you become passionate about green causes?
Growing up in Topanga Canyon [near Los Angeles], in the mountains with lots of creeks, with coyotes howling at night, with the ocean seven minutes away … I really felt connected to the planet.

What does EMA do?
Originally, it was about getting environmental messages into TV shows and films, whether it was someone driving a [Toyota] Prius hybrid across the screen or the story line of Erin Brockovich. Now we're also working to green the sets behind the scenes; EMA gives Green Seal Awards to ecofriendly productions.

How can people help?
Practice better lifestyle habits. Use nonharmful cleaners and recycled paper products. These are widely available and affordable now. Also, it's important to buy organic. Organic fruits, vegetables, and meats are far less polluting to waterways and soil. [Actor and fellow EMA board member] Ed Begley Jr.'s motto is, "Vote with your dollars." It's so true. We live in a consumer nation: What we buy is what manufacturers will produce.

"I crave being in the mountains and in the woods. I crave being in the ocean. I crave all these natural resources we have."

How has this cause changed you?
It fulfills me on the deepest level. I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing here. It makes me more selfless. It grounds me in what really matters.

What's your highest goal, related to this work?
To inspire as many people as possible to make positive changes in their lives.

Credits: Just Shoot Me!, Big Day
Supports: Humane Society; environmental causes

Wendie Malick
How did you become passionate about protecting the planet and its creatures?
The first time my eyes were really opened to how people treat animals, I was working as a model in Africa. A whale had beached itself. Rather than trying to save it or kill it humanely, the native people came and began slashing it with machetes, while it was still alive, for the meat. It was the beginning of my awareness of how out of balance things are—how desperate hunger and need dictate how differently animals are treated in other areas of the world.

How does concern for the environment fit in?
Nothing is important without a healthy planet. Everybody should go see An Inconvenient Truth. It's probably the most important documentary that's ever been done.

How can people help?
Find and back candidates who support radical, extreme reform, especially for energy policy. Buy as responsible a car as you can afford. Look into options for alternative power sources. Become conscious of everything you buy. For instance, take a canvas bag to the store and a coffee mug to the coffee shop. If everything we purchase comes at a cost, try to think, how can I lessen the impact of this purchase?

"My favorite people are animals. I think there's a direct correlation between how we treat each other and how we treat all sentient beings."

What have you learned from this work?
I need to be a better listener. We're all invested in our own point of view. It's easy to speak to fellow devotees, but it's hard to debate openly with people who think differently. The environment is all about the bigger picture—it's so nonpartisan.

What's your highest goal, related to this work?
I would love to see Al Gore as president; with an appropriate Congress, that would help push through some tough changes. I would love to help Americans understand that all of this will require some sacrifice. But in the end, we'll all win.


Delicious Living senior editor Susan Enfield spends her volunteer energies at her children's school and on emergency family assistance programs.