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Samaritan House CEO expands nonprofit's reach during COVID pandemic

Samaritan House CEO expands nonprofit's reach during COVID pandemic
Samaritan House CEO expands nonprofit's reach during COVID pandemic 03:02

FOSTER CITY -- A Foster City man has led the fight against poverty for tens of thousands of people in San Mateo County to make sure no one is left behind in the pandemic.

Bart Charlow has led Samaritan House for the last eight years as CEO, bringing emergency food, shelter and health care to more than 22,000 people in San Mateo County. 

"What drives me is seeing how much help we can bring to people who so need it," Charlow said.

Charlow expanded the 48-year-old nonprofit's reach in the pandemic: he created a drive-through pantry to give away free groceries and ensure no one goes hungry. The pantry offers no-contact food delivery that used to be covered by 12 different pre-COVID programs.  

Under Charlow, Samaritan House has tripled its homeless shelter space to more than 44,000 nights of safe shelter. It serves twice as many working families with groceries and hot meals, more than 2.5 million meals a year.

"One, we're taking care of hunger. The other, is we're taking care of food insecurity so that people aren't frightened every day about how they're going to feed their children, how they can keep food on the table so they can keep working and going on in life," Charlow explained.

He's helped people like Jesus Bueno who'd lost two construction jobs in the early COVID days. Samaritan House's food pantry and rental assistance kept him and his three kids fed and housed.

"A huge help, not just for me, but for everybody," Bueno said. "A lot of people I know were crying sometimes because they had no other way to get food."

Past board president Jay Strauss said Charlow has compassion, and that's part of what makes him an effective leader.

"He built a very strong leadership team within Samaritan House, but also he's here with the clients, and able to understand their needs," Strauss said.

In his eight years at Samaritan House, Charlow oversaw the beginning of the state's first food pharmacy. A licensed marriage and family therapist, Charlow also brought mental health services to the nonprofit's free health clinics in San Mateo and Redwood City.

Charlow admits his decades of service had an unlikely start.

"I tell the story that I began as a volunteer because I wanted a date with a woman in college and she chose where we were going to go and she took me to a place we were volunteering, and I got the bug," Charlow chuckled.

Over the years, his commitment to the community grew, inspired by mentors decades ago, and staff and volunteers today.

"I'm so proud of who they are. They make me a better person," Charlow said of the Samaritan House community.

Now he's ready to retire to spend more time with his wife of 46 years, three children and four grandchildren - and create on a different canvas. 

"I've been painting for more than 40 years," he said.

Charlow says he will help choose his successor before he retires. 

So for serving San Mateo County's working families through Samaritan House, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Bart Charlow.

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