HAYWARD -- Susanna Smith and Victoria Popejoy are separated by 25 years in age and grew up 3,000 miles apart. But each learned from family members the same core value that would define their lives: the importance of giving to those less fortunate.
Today, both Hayward-area women continuing their families' tradition. That is why, on most days they are at Hope 4 the Heart, a Hayward-area nonprofit agency. Popejoy, the organization's executive director, coordinates its effort to distribute food to thousands of Alameda County residents each month.
Her parents, Ronald and Vivian Vargas, founded Hope 4 the Heart in 2000. The owners of an auto mechanic shop in Cherryland, an unincorporated county area, the couple noticed that some residents in the neighborhood were struggling to make ends meet, especially to buy food. So, they partnered with a supermarket and started small, aiming to provide food to 30 families in need for the Easter holiday. They were startled to receive 300 requests, said Popejoy, 38.
To meet the ever-growing demand, the Vargas family made use of a warehouse on a one-acre parcel, across the street from their mechanic shop.
In 2008, an accidental fire destroyed the warehouse and, then last year, Ronald Vargas passed away. But the founder's family refused to give up on Hope 4 the Heart. Led by Popejoy, and still fueled by as many as 15 volunteers, it has become an indispensable part of the county's social safety net.
The all-volunteer nonprofit organization, funded by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is surrounded by a cyclone fence with barbed wire and tucked between railroad tracks and industrial businesses along Meekland Avenue. Its dirt driveway turned muddy during rainstorms this month, complicating efforts to access the puddle-filled tent serving as the organization's interim warehouse.
Despite its modest home, Hope 4 the Heart on most weekday mornings buzzes with activity and goodwill. It also opens its doors the third Saturday of each month so that local families can come and get their assistance directly.
"It has just evolved, and it kept growing and growing," Popejoy said.
Today, it helps nearly 12,000 East Bay families each month by giving away food and household items to dozens of charities, which then distribute those items to people in need.
One of those groups is Shiloh Baptist Church, where Susianna Smith volunteers. Smith said her giving spirit was fostered while growing up on her family's small farm in rural North Carolina, where people in desperate straits sometimes showed up unexpectedly at the front door. Her aunt would go, without hesitation, to the family garden and give whatever they had to give.
"I was raised to help people," said Smith, a 66-year-old grandmother.
More than 50 years later, she still is following her aunt's model. She serves as the Hayward church's pantry coordinator and makes around three trips per week to Hope 4 the Heart.
There, Smith picks up food and other items, such as diapers, lotion and bandages. She then drives 1½ mile back to the Hayward church, where she distributes those items for free to struggling residents. On average, the church helps about 150 families per week, she said.
Smith served nearly 30 years in the Army Reserve and worked at Alameda County Juvenile Hall in San Leandro. But she is now retired and considers charity work to be her full-time job.
"We all need help, one way or the other, and this is my way of helping," Smith said. She added that none of it would be possible without Hope 4 the Heart.
"It's a blessing to have a place like that," she said.
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.
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