By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent

In 1989, Esther Schau discovered Petaluma. “It was Halloween,” she remembers.

She grew up in Pennsylvania, and the city reminded her of the East Coast — “the brick buildings, the downtown and people were friendly.” She called her husband, Kurt, at their Alameda home and told him they were moving to Petaluma.

“He went to school in Marin. And he said, ‘Petaluma? It’s a cow town. And it’s so far away.’”

The town has changed in 22 years, Schau says, “but I still love it. Now that downtown has been revitalized you can feel like you’re in a bigger city, but I just walked into a store and saw three people I know.”

Many residents describe Petaluma as a caring community. If someone’s ill, in trouble or needs help, word gets around, and people pitch in to assist.

Schau is one of those people. She has been working at making the city a good place to live since her family first arrived.

As a member of the American Association of University Women, the Petaluma Woman’s Club and St. Seraphim Orthodox Church, her pet projects involve education and veterans. Working as an ambassador for the Chamber of Commerce keeps her involved with the business community.

Schau’s philanthropic spirit goes back to her childhood, she says, as one of 13 children growing up on a small farm in western Pennsylvania.

“My parents were involved with our church, and so was I,” she said. “It was something we did, giving back to the community. Even if I were working full time, I would still find a way to be involved.

“It’s a gift to be able to give.”

During 20 years in the U.S.Army, she spent most of her time on administrative and personnel duties, “taking care of soldiers and their families,” Schau said.

She continues that work through AAUW, which works with the Committee on theShelterless. As past president, she co-chairs the group’s community outreach wing, furnishing an apartment for homeless veterans and helping them transition back and hopefully go to school.

“That’s so rewarding for me as an ex-veteran,” she says.

Schau is especially proud of AAUW’s COTS education program for adults. Many haven’t completed high school, she says, and now find themselves homeless and unemployable.

“They had jobs prior to the recession but were laid off or their jobs eliminated,” she says. “Many are people who worked in the trades or even in local businesses.”

AAUW’s program helps those who want to study for high school equivalency certificates, working with COTS to fund bus passes, uniforms, equipment and fees.

“We’ve also set up a COTS education house. The people who live there are going to school, and this gives them a place to live.”

Schau has a personal connection to that population. Neither of her parents completed high school, leaving after eighth grade to help support their families.

As corresponding secretary of the Petaluma Woman’s Club and a charter member of its evening group, she also helps raise money for the scholarships awarded each year to high school students.

Last year, Schau also chaired her church’s annual Glendi Festival, two days of ethnic food and dance, guiding the event to its largest turnout over.

“I’d say we had at least 2,500 people,” she said. A portion of the profits went to COTS’ homeless veterans program, the Redwood Gospel Mission and Catholic Charities.

And as a Chamber of Commerce ambassador, Schau attends after hours functions, greeting people, encouraging networking and welcoming newcomers. She also works on its early morning Wake Up Petaluma.

“It’s a different crowd,” she says, “more political, including business and nonprofits. It makes me feel like I’m part of the business community, even though I’m not.”

Kurt is also active with the Sunrise Rotary Club and the Boys & Girls Club.

Schau is always amazed when she visits other towns and cities where residents are not as involved as Petalumans are.

“I feel like they’re missing out,” she says. “Sometimes you think it can’t be done, whatever fundraiser it is, but Petaluma is a special community. More often than not, it ends up being successful.”