North Central community activist Bertha Sanchez passed away this month. She was a bedrock of our neighborhood and dedicated president of HANCSM. She was brilliant light that touched us all, and she will be dearly missed. Our sincere condolences to her family.
From working as an emergency room nurse to passionately advocating for the community, Bertha Sanchez was remembered by San Mateo officials and residents who shared fond memories of her after her death Friday morning.
A longtime leader with the Home Association of North Central San Mateo and former planning commissioner, Sanchez was a powerful voice for her fellow neighbors and an active presence at City Hall.
Sanchez died early Friday morning at the Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, where she was formerly employed as a nurse. The 78-year-old of Chinese and Filipino descent had family by her side when she died from complications of a stroke and myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of blood cancer she was diagnosed with a year earlier, said her younger sister Evangeline Griepenstroh.
“She has so many people that she’s touched,” Griepenstroh said.
Sanchez, who attended local schools including San Mateo High, leaves behind her sister and two brothers. Opting to never marry or have children, Sanchez was “too busy” dedicating herself to worthy causes, her sister said.
Born in the Philippines before moving to San Mateo around 1945, Sanchez’s community activism was inspired in part by having witnessed the effects of World War II as a child, Griepenstroh said.
“I have a feeling that because she was old enough to see the devastation, that she made up her mind early that she was going to help out and that’s why she did a lot of volunteer work,” Griepenstroh said. “She just had a finger in all kinds of pie.”
As a nurse, she committed her skills to healing a variety of people. Her early volunteer career included traveling the world with Project Concern International, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the health of vulnerable communities. She helped to set up clinics in various countries through her volunteerism and also worked as a Jefferson High School nurse, Griepenstroh said.
She’s perhaps best known as the longtime co-president of the neighborhood group HANCSM. She also served on the Planning Commission from 1999-2007, a two-term tenure through which she had a significant impact on the massive Bay Meadows transit-oriented redevelopment.
Sanchez was also revered as an inspiration for others to get involved and for forging strong neighborhood identities.
“She was active until literally her last few days,” said Ben Toy, president of the San Mateo United Homeowners Association. “As with all people, especially women who are active like her, she was very forceful. She had an opinion and had a mind, but she was reasonable. … I had great respect and she was the one who asked me to start volunteering.”
Noting the strong-willed lifelong San Mateo resident took some convincing before she’d consider changing her opinion, Toy said Sanchez left a meaningful impact on the city and those with whom she came into contact.
“Our identity is San Mateo,” Toy said. “And she’s been very significant to the city.”
Deputy Mayor David Lim recalled Sanchez introducing herself when he and his wife attended their first Planning Commission meeting in the early 2000s. Visiting City Hall because they were interested in their remodeling their own home at the time, Lim said Sanchez kindly explained the public review and planning process to him — an encounter he remembers fondly.
Although the two ran against one another for City Council in 2007, Lim said he always recognized her as a powerful force in the community.
“What I remember her for most, is just her tireless advocacy on behalf of homeowners,” Lim said. “She was not afraid to speak up and speak out.”
State Sen. Jerry Hill, a former San Mateo mayor, praised Sanchez’s character and community contributions.
“No one had a bigger heart or a greater passion for the city of San Mateo and its neighborhoods than Bertha Sanchez,” Hill said in an email. “Bertha loved San Mateo and believed deeply in community and neighborhood preservation. She was a spirited, powerful advocate and will be greatly missed.”
She inspired her fellow neighbor, said HANCSM Treasurer Wesley Taoka.
Sanchez would often seek to keep elderly members of her community engaged by reaching out for assistance with the HANCSM newsletter, he said.
“For HANCSM, Bertha was the leader. She kept the organization going through her energy and enthusiasm and caring for the neighborhood. She helped people,” Taoka said. “She’ll be very sorely missed by everybody in the community.”