Honoree is grateful Hebrew Free Loan came to the rescue

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

When Steve Grau’s grandfather suffered debilitating back-to-back strokes in 2004, he helped coordinate the older man’s care. Though many of the providers involved were compassionate, Grau determined that the transport services did not consistently “execute their mission of compassion and service.”

Steve Grau

Because of that experience, Grau, who had worked in the tech industry, was inspired to start on a new career path, one he was able to pursue with help from Hebrew Free Loan of San Francisco.

Grau, 37, founded and is now CEO of Royal Ambulance, a company based in San Leandro that operates in four Bay Area counties. In nine years, the firm has grown from 10 to 200 employees, owns 37 ambulances — up from three in 2006 — and logged more than 37,000 nonemergency medical transports in 2014.

Grau says HFL helped make his dream come true, just as the agency had helped his parents in 1989 when they arrived in the Bay Area from Odessa, Ukraine, along with thousands of other Russian Jewish immigrants.

“We provided loans to help people settle here with dignity, allow them to maintain a semblance of the lives they had led. Not everybody needed us, but thousands did,” said Cindy Rogoway, executive director at HFL. “We partnered with Jewish Family and Children’s Services and others. Every­body played a role.”

Today HFL has about $9 million out in active loans, aiding close to 1,100 recipients. The agency processes about 400 loans a year through a number of programs, from adoption to special needs to debt consolidation (see www.hflasf.org). The average loan is $9,000, and the maximum amount available is $50,000.

“We have a repayment rate of over 99 percent,” Rogoway said proudly. “I think that is because we look at the work we do as administering from a pot of Jewish communal funds. Even people who filed for bankruptcy have repaid us, repaid the community.”

Grau was 12 when he came to San Francisco with his parents, sister, grandparents and an aunt and uncle. “It must have been very scary for my parents, who were younger than I am now,” Grau said. “But because of benefactors here, local Jewish community members who paid it forward, my family and other members of the Russian Jewish community benefited.”

Part of the Royal Ambulance fleet

Grau’s parents’ experience with HFL inspired him to turn to the agency for help with student loans and then again in 2006 when he needed a $25,000 business loan to start Royal Ambulance.

After Grau repaid the loan, he was moved to give back in a different way. He served on HFL’s business loan committee and today is a board member. Grau also heads the steering committee for the Full Circle Club, which encourages former borrowers to help support HFL so others may benefit.

On May 31, HFL will honor Grau, Gary Shapiro (agency leader) and Carol Weitz (communal leader) at its biennial gala. Russian Jewish immigrants who settled locally also will be heralded.

At Royal Ambulance, Grau’s goal has been to treat patients as he had wanted his grandfather to be treated in his time of medical distress. “Our organizational purpose is to create exceptional experiences, to go a little bit above and beyond with our compassion as we deal with people’s anxiety,” he said, adding: “The loan I received to start my company has impacted so many others. We have transported over a quarter-million people.”

Rogoway sees it the same way. “At HFL, we like to think about the impact our loans have not just on the recipients, but on the people they employ and serve and on the community,” she said. “We help people in need, people with dreams — and a little support from us has a ripple effect.”

Hebrew Free Loan gala is May 31 at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, S.F. $250; Top of the Mark cocktail reception $100. (415) 546-9902 ext. 106 or www.hflasf.org/circleofgenerosity

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.