The sky was overcast above the corner of Hope and Mercy streets in Mountain View on Jan. 27. Guests were expected to start arriving at any minute, but the volunteers were sure that they would be drenched by the forecasted heavy rain.
Still, the Hope’s Corner volunteers wouldn’t let the weather ruin a day for celebration, hanging up balloons and banners to lighten up the gloomy atmosphere. To their surprise, the rain held off as they reached a new milestone: the 100,000th free meal provided by Hope’s Corner.
The guests lined up as usual to pick up their meals — most didn’t know that it was a special occasion — but the volunteers were eagerly counting down. Only around 20 people in, they hit 100,000. The recipient was awarded a $25 gift card, and, beaming, he posed for a photo.
Hope’s Corner, a nonprofit organization based in downtown Mountain View, has served free, nutritious meals to the public since 2011. In its early years, Hope’s Corner served just a few dozen guests in a small social hall. Today, it provides meals and resources to more than 700 individuals.
“I think everybody’s just really proud and kind of amazed,” said Mike Hacker, a board member of Hope’s Corner. “It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that we hit … 50,000 and then 75,000.”
But it wasn’t impossible to predict either. Hope’s Corner hasn’t missed a single Saturday — the day they usually serve their meals — since they started in 2011, including on Christmas and other holidays.
That isn’t just some token achievement; Hope’s Corner has really impacted people’s lives. One of those folks is a former student at De Anza College, who requested to stay anonymous for privacy concerns. As an unhoused student, she lost access to a power source to charge her laptop when the pandemic hit.
With her studies halted in the middle of the spring quarter, she needed to find another solution. She went around, explaining her situation to school administrators and governmental organizations. They were empathetic but, frustratingly, offered no feasible solution.
Then someone from the Community Services Agency in Mountain View recommended reaching out to Hope’s Corner. Despite not having an existing program to meet her needs, the volunteer she spoke with listened to her situation and promised to try and help. A couple days later, they called her back and said they had a power bank she could use.
“It’s like you were sinking and someone tossed you a life jacket,” she said. “The name ‘Hope’s Corner’ is really fitting.”
With the power bank and support from Hope’s Corner, she was able to finish the quarter at De Anza College.
“You can tell that [the volunteers] care, and they listen, and they want to do something about it,” she said. “It’s one of those life experiences that you treasure and never forget.”
“It’s volunteer work that leaves you feeling good about what you’re doing and allows you to relate to people, maybe look at people differently,” Hacker said. “You recognize that you have a lot more in common with other people than you might realize or want to acknowledge.”
Hacker and other volunteers’ commitment has remained unfazed even through COVID-19, ensuring that Hope’s Corner could continue to provide its usual free meals; in fact, noticing the rise in food insecurity, the organization has only increased its reach, serving three times as many meals since the pandemic started. And in addition to serving the weekly Saturday and Wednesday meals at the usual Mountain View location, Hope’s Corner has even expanded its meal delivery offsite for the first time, serving mobile home residents and the Day Worker Center.
Hope’s Corner’s numerous volunteers are the cornerstone of the organization’s rapid growth. Before the pandemic, over 600 individuals came to volunteer at Hope’s Corner each year. But now, to minimize the risk of spreading disease, its operations have been reduced to two core groups that switch off every Saturday.
Still, community members are finding other ways to stay involved. Meals are now packed in paper bags in a “grab and go” style so people can stay in their cars to pick up meals; several volunteer groups have come in to decorate these paper bags with artwork and words of encouragement — plus the occasional food pun. Something this small can bring a lot of joy to people, Hacker said. One woman even started to frame some of the decorated bags she received.
“They don’t have to be creative enough to be good artists,” Hacker continued. “Just anything like that makes a big difference.”
Despite all of Hope’s Corner’s recent success, though, some services have been put on pause due to COVID-19 restrictions. Notably, the pandemic has put a stopper on Hope’s Corner’s laundry and shower services. With it being one of the only places offering these services for free — and one of the cleanest — they’ve been particularly missed by frequenters, Hacker said.
Less tangibly, but equally as important, pre-pandemic Hope’s Corner had formed its own niche community. Old-timers would come together every week like clockwork, sharing meals with friends or even piecing together jigsaw puzzles. Now, with social distancing protocols in place, these weekly get-togethers have become impossible.
But even without the option to have those same sit-downs, the Hope’s Corner community is staying resilient, gathering in a scattered arrangement of chairs in the parking lot. Socially distanced and when it’s not raining, of course.
“During COVID, I even heard someone [say], ‘Hey, I haven’t seen Joe for a while; anyone seen Joe?’” Hacker said. “They kind of look out for each other and … have each other’s backs, … so it’d be great when we can reopen up sitdown meals again where people can hang out on chit-chat.”
In the meantime, Hope’s Corner will keep on bringing smiles to people’s faces, one meal at a time.