Sacramento’s Fairy Godmother

Eye doctor sets her sights on philanthropy

By Jessica Laskey
August 2020

Giving back has been the driving force of Dr. Barbara Arnold’s life. The celebrated ophthalmologist has generously donated her time, money and wisdom for decades—which she believes is the key to a life well lived.

“If you do big things young enough in life, you get to see the ripple effect as you get older,” says Arnold, who lives in Curtis Park, but also has an art studio off Scribner Road along the Sacramento River, where she paints the natural beauty out her window. “That’s why I encourage younger people to participate (in philanthropy). Do it within your vibrant lifetime to witness what your giving has done.”

Barbara Arnold has a lot to witness. As a philanthropist, she’s been a longtime supporter of the American Medical Association Foundation, Crocker Art Museum—where she teaches watercolor classes to the visually impaired in collaboration with the Society for the Blind—Sacramento Public Library Foundation, Salvation Army, River City Food Bank and WEAVE, to name a few.

As a volunteer, Arnold has served as a volunteer faculty member at the UC Davis Eye Clinic for the past 38 years. She’s also a clinical professor in the school’s Department of Ophthalmology and has made significant financial contributions to the department’s Eye Research Fund. She’s a 25-year member of the Rotary Club of Sacramento, which awarded her its inaugural Jean Runyon Community Service Award last November. And she donates a piece of art to the KVIE Art Auction each year—she won Best in Show her first time out in 2016—and to the Crocker Art Museum’s annual “Big Names, Small Art” fundraising exhibition.

As a kid growing up in Nebraska, Barbara Arnold learned that giving back can take many forms.

“We lived frugally, but I always saw my parents volunteering,” Arnold says. “When you grow up in a small community, you see that time is a very valuable resource and that the gift of that time is important.”

After earning her medical degree from the University of Colorado—she was the first woman accepted into the school’s ophthalmology training program—and serving four years with the U.S. Air Force as a flight surgeon, Arnold decided to open a medical practice in Sacramento in 1981. She specifically chose to locate her office in the south area to serve the Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant population.

“I wanted to go where I was needed the most,” Arnold says. “There were fewer physicians in that ZIP code (at the time) and I’m a big believer that one should be able to get medical care close to where one lives.”

Barbara Arnold still runs a very successful ophthalmology practice, which means she’s constantly conscious of using her resources to support others.

When she started attending Fairytale Town with her two grandchildren 10 years ago, she noticed that the beloved play park could use some TLC—so she donated $100,000 to help the park make capital improvements and renovate the Children’s Theater. She’s also one of the lead contributors to Fairytale Town’s “Timeless Tales” campaign to fund a half-acre expansion, which includes the addition of a play-based literacy center. Fairytale Town’s director emeritus Kathy Fleming rightly calls Arnold their “fairy godmother.”

It’s not surprising that Arnold has been recognized with various awards for her contributions to her community, including the California Medical Association’s first Compassionate Service Award in 2015, Association of Fundraising Professionals California Capital Chapter’s Outstanding Philanthropist award in 2019, and this year’s University of Colorado School of Medicine Medical Alumni Association’s Silver and Gold Award for Excellence in Humanitarianism, Citizenship and Professionalism.

But Arnold isn’t in it for the praise—she’s in it to pay it forward.

“I want to be a role model to incentivize others to give,” Arnold says. “If you share with your community, then you get to experience the joy of seeing how you’ve helped.”

For more information on Fairytale Town’s “Timeless Tales” campaign, visit

Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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