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San Mateo Daily News Thursday Dec 20, 2007 Year-round cheer Samaritan House aids needy during the holidays and beyond By Bil Paul If there weren't a Samaritan House in San Mateo, we'd need to invent one. The 30-plus-year-old nonprofit has become such an all-encompassing charitable organization that I'm hard-pressed to think of anything it doesn't do. It provides everything from health care to clothing and education for the less fortunate. I decided to zero in on one of its most important functions for a holiday column - providing free food - and was given a tour of that part of its operations late Monday. It's a tour more people should take - they would learn that 90 percent of Samaritan House's 2,000 client families earn less than $25,000 per year. That's a part of our society many of us aren't exposed to. First on the tour was the food pantry at 401 North Humboldt Street, where the kitchen and some administrative offices are also located. Here, twin volunteers Myrna and Myrle Sonobe were busy bagging food for pickup by visitors, as Monday was the last day for holiday food distribution. Due to the generosity of the Second Harvest Food Bank, supermarkets, food drives, a farmers market, and hotels and restaurants, the pantry gets a tremendous amount of food. Also, local residents donate extra fruit and veggies from home gardens - and Samaritan House itself has a garden on the property. Earlier in the month, on three separate days, Samaritan House held a kind of supermarket at nearby high school gymnasiums to provide holiday food. The concept was to allow visitors to select their own food, which means it's more likely to be consumed. Next on the tour was the Samaritan House kitchen, run by the modest and quiet Ruby Kaho for eight years. Her husband, Jose Montano, drives the truck that collects food donations around central San Mateo County. Kaho's workplace, which is about the size of a larger restaurant's kitchen, generates around 500 meals a day, five days a week. At the end of the day, she returns home to cook for her family's five children! Out of this kitchen comes the food for the Samaritan House's homeless shelter in South San Francisco, the Safe Harbor Shelter. An even larger job is supplying all the food for the Samaritan House's free hot meals a few blocks over in the basement of the Church of Christ. Five days a week, 120 meals are served there. The kitchen also supplies food for other venues from time to time, including San Mateo's downtown hiring center. As with the supermarket concept I mentioned earlier, where clients get to pick out their own food, Samaritan House has departed from the old soup kitchen concept by allowing people to either eat at the church or take their food with them to eat at home, where some folks are more comfortable. At the church, Mario Cousenes, who was once homeless himself, manages the operation. He volunteered with the organization for over a decade before becoming part of the staff eight years ago. On this particular Monday night, one of the grocery stores had donated some quiche, which must have been a hit with visitors. So far, I've mainly talked about staff members, but Director of Client Services Steve Hargis emphasizes that the secret of Samaritan House's success is its tremendous reservoir of volunteers, who help in the food operations and in other parts of the charity's far-flung services. Add to that all the individuals and organizations that donate money, equipment and expertise. Said Hargis, "We know that a shortage of food is a symptom of other issues" in people's lives. "You feed them, then you try to help them with their other problems." To that end, clients register with the organization and Samaritan House tries to help them improve their lot in life. For example, the church meals manager, Cousenes, tries to establish relationships with his visitors and makes them aware he can help. Cousenes himself emigrated from Guatemala, and can speak fluent Spanish, so he's a good connection to other Hispanic immigrants. One of his volunteers, Bryson Ford, said, "Mario talks to people about their problems. He helped me out a lot. (At one time) I was his worst enemy. But now, he's a father to me." Samaritan House is there year-round for those who need food and other help. But they recognize the symbolic and traditional importance of Christmas, and go the extra distance to help individuals and families celebrate it. There's a toy program, and this year 117 community donors "adopted" 258 families and seniors through Samaritan House to provide gifts and food directly. "This is a wonderful community," said Hargis. "People are very generous." A special Christmas Eve dinner will be provided at the Church of Christ between 2 and 4 p.m. Monday. As Samaritan House's public relations person, Nancy Carothers, said: "If you're losing faith in humanity, come on down and talk to people like Mario and Ruby." I saw a certain realness and happiness in the faces of the Samaritan House staff and volunteers I met. Sometimes one finds the real sense of Christmas in the most unexpected places. Have a nice holiday.
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