Feeding the hungry in Healdsburg
By ELIZABETH COSIN / Healdsburg Correspondent
Susan Graf’s specialty clothing shop has been a fixture on the corner of Healdsburg and Matheson since 1998. For almost as many years, Graf has been helping feed the hungry in Healdsburg.
Graf, who moved here in the early ‘90s from Bern, Switzerland, says working for the pantry is her passion, a job made easier by living in a place like Healdsburg.
“This community looks after its own,” she says. “Whatever we seem to ask for, we get and everyone contributes. Our success is proof of that.”
The event has raised as much as $80,000 of the pantry’s $150,000 annual budget, and this year organizers are aiming to raise at least $100,000. The event includes a western dinner by KR Catering, an auction, wines by Toad Hollow Vineyards, music by Manzanita Moon and a square dance called by Steve Minkin.
The not-for-profit pantry, which was founded in 1980, is supported entirely by volunteers and community donations. It collects, stores and distributes food to needy families from the Healdsburg and Geyserville communities.
Graf says more than 2,800 people receive packages of food staples (rice, beans, cereal, soups for example) every two weeks. More than a half-million in food and produce are provided each year to clients who are mostly working families.
The pantry also provides Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas food baskets, makes donations to Meals on Wheels and gives out sneakers and coats to those in need.
“Our recent economic problems have brought a lot more people to our door,” Graf says. “The need is really great right now, and I feel we have to do everything we can. These people have jobs, but they just can’t afford the basics.”
Graf tirelessly works to fill the void. And has built a reputation for her charity work.
“When we first moved to Healdsburg people often referred to Susan by her amazing fund raising events,” says David Barnett owner of Brush Salon in Healdsburg, who has organized two successful fundraisers in the last couple of years to raise funds for diabetes research. Graf stepped in for year two to emcee a fashion show for the event. “We were inspired by her level of community involvement and her willingness to help others. In turn, we started our own charity event and Susan was only to willing to offer her advice, support and participation.”
She grew up in St. Paul, Minn., one of five children of a defense contractor and a housewife. She calls her siblings geniuses, among them her twin sister Loretta Strobel Bailey, a retired Air Force colonel who moved to Healdsburg five years ago.
“They were all much smarter than me,” Graf says with a laugh. “I’m not joking. My sister went to M.I.T. I didn’t feel like I was exactly destined for college.”
She attended high school in New Hampshire, but her parents divorced just before she graduated. Instead of going off to college, she followed her father and her new stepmom to Rome, where he was working on the Patriot Missile for Raytheon Company. Graf said the trip changed her life.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” she says. “It really opened my eyes to the bigger world. I wanted to be a part of that.”
She went back to the States with plans to study design in college, but got sidetracked and ended up working for a shipping company in Boston. What sold her on the job was the company’s location, which included a breathtaking view of Boston Harbor.
In Boston she met and fell in love with a Swiss businessman, returning with him to Bern after they were married. While he worked hard to build a shipping company, Graf landed a job at the United States Embassy, working for then-Ambassador Faith Whittlesey.
Eventually she followed her boss to Washington, D.C., where Whittlesey served as assistant to the president for public liaison under President Ronald Reagan. In what Graf calls a fantastic year, she lived and worked in Washington, D.C., with her office in the West Wing of the White House.
“It was an amazing, amazing experience,” she says. “I went on Air Force One, rode in a motorcade with President Reagan. I just had incredible access at the highest levels.”
After a year, Graf left the incredibly intense job, returning to Bern to open a clothing store, her first foray into the world of retail. Then her husband relocated to Wyoming to raise cattle, a life Graf wasn’t keen on.
“I went from flying to London for dinner to feeding 300 cattle in 50-degree weather,” she says. “It snowed on the Fourth of July. No, it wasn’t for me.”
The couple eventually separated, but Graf says they have remained on good terms. She started looking for a new place to call home, somewhere she had never lived. A friend introduced her to Healdsburg, and from the moment she arrived she was hooked.
“It reminded me of Bern,” she says. “I really fell in love.”
A sidesaddle horse jumper, Graf said Sonoma gave her a place she could keep her horse. She also felt it had real potential for a retail shop, and she liked the people. She wanted to be a part of the community.
When she arrived in 1995, Graf spent Sunday mornings after church at St. John’s on the benches outside the Healdsburg Downtown Bakery and Creamery. She noticed groups who would sit there and thought it was a good way to meet people.
“I grabbed a coffee and a sticky bun, and I just introduced myself,” she says. “It worked.”
In 1998, she opened Susan Graf Ltd., a retail clothing shop she describes as extremely successful. For the past eight years, Harper’s Bazaar has included it among the top 100 specialty stores.
Shortly after, she saw a notice that the Healdsburg Pantry needed volunteers and she signed up immediately. It’s been a labor of love ever since.
“I’ve been given a gift,” she says. “In my life, I’ve been blessed in so many was. I believe we’re all in this together, and it’s such a great feeling to be able to do something, to give back to the community that I love.”
The Healdsburg Food Pantry’s 10th Annual Square Dance begins at 6 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $75, $1,000 for a patron table of 12. For tickets and other information, contact 433-6777 or visit healdsburgfoodpantry.org.