OAKLAND -- One thing that sticks out about Grace Baptist Church is the sheer number of people who leave with heaping bags of food.
It's hard not to notice, especially for people struggling to feed their families.
Sara and Gonzalo Toscano first saw people lined up outside the church's food pantry years ago. With several mouths to feed and not much income, they eventually swallowed their pride and got in line.
"There is a sense of apprehension," Gonzalo Toscano said. "How is it going to work? How am I going to feel doing this? But what we learned is that what you get on the other side of the line are wonderful, warmhearted individuals."
Grace Baptist has been helping its East Oakland community year round for decades. The church, at 705 98th Ave., hosts an annual block party that doubles as a school supplies fair, and it runs a community food pantry that serves hot meals twice a month. During the holiday season, the church steps up its game.
Last month, about 1,000 people attended its charity gathering, where everyone received a hot meal and all the ingredients to cook their own festive Thanksgiving Day feast. The church, one of 32 nonprofit agencies participating in the Share the Spirit fundraising program this holiday season, will soon host another food giveaway and feast, as well as a clothing drive and a toy drive.
"Without Grace, I wouldn't have a nice Christmas dinner, and my kids wouldn't have much," said Jeanette Lewis, a part-time worker who lives with her husband and their five school-aged children.
The driving force behind the church's charity work is Lola Hardy, a Hayward resident and great-grandmother who spent her working days at the former NUMMI auto plant.
Hardy took over the food pantry at the request of her pastor, Charles Hopkins, in the late 1990s, when it operated on only $100 per month. She has expanded it through grants, a loyal core of volunteers and devotion to everyone she serves.
"It has just become part of my life," she said. "If someone says they need food, I make sure they get some. Sometimes I come up to Oakland two or three times a day."
The food pantry has been a godsend for Sheila Kisling, whose 15-year-old daughter, Ashante Moreno, has cerebral palsy.
"Words cannot describe how much Grace Baptist has helped me," she said.
When her cupboards are bare, Kisling has called Hardy, who races over to open the pantry. "She'll ask, "Is that all you want?'" Kisling said. "Sister Lola is always there for you."
Many of the people who receive help from the church also give back. The Toscanos, using food that Hardy secured from the Alameda County Food Bank, cooked tamales for a recent church block party.
Kisling has joined the church and sometimes volunteers handing out food and preparing meals. After all the beans, meats, fruits, vegetables and canned goods are in the hands of the needy, all the volunteers sit down for a feast of their own.
"It's so nice," Kisling said. "You feel like you're family. Like they're your sisters and your brothers."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.
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.