HAYWARD -- Once a month, Martha Victorio picks up a box of donated food from Hope 4 the Heart -- enough to feed her family for a week.
"The food we get is very important for my family," the Cherryland mother of three said through a translator.
Victorio is one of 350 to 450 families who receive food and household items from the Cherryland nonprofit agency on the third Saturday of the month. The rest of the month, the agency collects food and then distributes it to other nonprofit groups, food banks and shelters, serving more than 12,000 families monthly, said Victoria Popejoy, the group's executive director.
"The nonprofits come to us five days a week. We give them large amounts of food, and they take it back to their groups," she said.
But what many families are aware of is Hope 4 the Heart's monthly direct food distribution. Among those who show up is Blanca Ramirez, of Oakland, who said she depends on the food to provide her three children healthy meals with fresh produce and fruit.
"The volunteers there are very noble, and they don't care where you're from. They will help everybody out," she said through a translator.
For the holidays, Hope 4 the Heart plans to use its Share the Spirit grant to buy gift cards for teenagers. The agency also receives donations of toys from the Alameda County Fire Department and distributes them to other groups to hand out to their clients along with holiday food baskets.
"But the 12- to 17-year-olds were being missed, and they're still just as excited about Christmas," Popejoy said. "We decided we would buy Old Navy gift cards of $25 and Jamba Juice $5 ones."
Popejoy and her parents, Ronald and Vivian Vargas, started Hope 4 the Heart in 2000. Her father ran an auto mechanic business on Meekland Avenue, and the family saw that many nearby residents were struggling to make ends meet.
"We decided that around Easter, we would hand out hot dogs and prizes -- Easter gift baskets, bicycles, things like that," she said.
They expected about 30 to 50 families, but more than 370 children showed up, along with their families.
"It was mind-blowing; we had to run to Lucky to get more food. It made us realize there was a real need in the community," she said.
Popejoy and her parents decided to continue food handouts, partnering with a grocery store and using a warehouse on a parcel of land they owned across from their shop. They started small, feeding 15 to 40 families a month, she said. Hope 4 the Heart then joined with nonprofit agencies Feed the Children and Operation Blessing.
"Operation Blessing began bringing semi-truckloads of food. It kind of blew up from there," Popejoy said.
Since then, Hope 4 the Heart has shifted its primary focus, working with groups to distribute food at other local nonprofit agencies, most of which are in Alameda County, but also include some in Contra Costa County, San Jose and Santa Rosa. Representatives from about 30 to 60 nonprofit groups stop by Hope 4 the Heart each day to get food. Ensuring there is enough for everyone keeps Hope 4 the Heart volunteers scrambling.
"Our trucks are out picking up donations of food seven days a week," Popejoy said.
Hope 4 the Heart has weathered two major setbacks. About five years ago, a fire destroyed the warehouse. The agency did not have insurance, and it has been raising money since then to open a new warehouse.
A building has been constructed, but the nonprofit group needs about $90,000 to finish work before it can be used. The driveway remains unpaved. Workers make do, operating out of big white tents clearly visible from the street.
"Those tents are what we've been living in the last five years," Popejoy said. "It's been -- interesting. The forklifts sometimes get stuck in the mud."
Then her father died unexpectedly two years ago. Despite the struggles, the family vowed to keep the all-volunteer operation going.
"Somebody's got to step up and do something to help out," Popejoy said. "You can't turn people away."
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate.
Readers with questions and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.