The sound of a French horn rolled through Calaveras Big Trees State Park on a warm autumn morning as musician Patricia O’Gara played for walkers and volunteers at the 25th annual Walk for HOPE.

The event was a fundraiser for Sierra HOPE, a local nonprofit that helps fill gaps in the social safety net throughout the Mother Lode.

A common enough type of fundraiser, walkers raised money by soliciting sponsorships from friends, family, and local businesses. But what made this event special was the location—the shady trails of Big Trees.

“I like coming to Big Trees,” Executive Director Jerry Cadotte said. “I’ve done walks in San Francisco, Sacramento. Other walks are not in a forest, not as pretty. And ours is low-key. It’s more of a picnic.”

Indeed, feeding people is an important part of Sierra HOPE’s mission. A food pantry in Angels Camp is one of a list of services Sierra HOPE provides to the local community. They also offer a housing support program for Calaveras residents that includes emergency housing assistance, rapid rehousing, and transitional housing.

“It’s a hand up, not a handout,” said board member Gina Milani.

Sierra HOPE began in 1987 as the Tuolumne County AIDS Task Force. It incorporated as Sierra HOPE in 1990. Board member Xan Adams has been with the organization since the beginning. Why?

“The camaraderie,” he said. “I started because I wanted help people with AIDS.” As AIDS/HIV became less of a crisis, “we had to change our focus,” he said.

But, true to their roots, Sierra HOPE still offers HIV case management and support services in five Sierra counties (Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Mono, and Tuolumne.) The program is staffed by volunteers and relies on donations to subsidize grants to keep people in homes and food on the table.

Walk for HOPE is the main fundraiser for Sierra HOPE, although they have other donation programs like Heroes Fighting Hunger, a subscription donation service. This year, because of Covid, organizers realized that participants might be cautious about coming out for the walk, so they encouraged people to do a “virtual” event. Cadotte said that the response had been good, but they were looking forward to seeing people in-person at the park.

When Cadotte said Walk for Hope was like a picnic, he wasn’t kidding. As you might expect, feeding hungry people who participate in Walk for HOPE is an important part of the event. Two pop-up tents covered tables loaded with sandwich fixings, fruit and snacks; two volunteers waved away sleepy meat bees and built ham and cheese on wheat for two ladies setting out for the South Grove portion of the walk.

In total, the walk is flexible.

“People have a choice,” said Cadotte. “They can walk wherever they like.”

A volunteer wandered in, having just scouted the North Grove walk in case she was called on to lead a group. “I wanted to know what to expect,” she said.

A small army of dedicated volunteers supported the walk. The food tables were overseen by volunteers from two area churches—Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Angels Camp and First Congregational Church of Murphys.

Pastor Liz Armstrong from the Angels Camp contingent rocked a purple streak in her hair and an energetic attitude.

She said, “There are three important things I like about this event. One, it’s a beautiful spot. Two, I like the outreach project with the Congregational Church in Murphys. And I like doing God’s will, and spending time together.” She laughed, nodded to everyone, and added, “I like being with everybody and doing something for charity.”

Many mentioned the camaraderie enjoyed at the event.

Board member Bertha Underhill said, “I love everybody’s focus on the purpose, to provide hope.” She added, “What’s not to like? You’re in the trees. Good people around you. You’re supporting the community.”

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