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Editor’s note: This is the second story in a five-day series profiling unsung local pro bono heroes. Inside the small, disheveled office of the Homeless Action Center in Berkeley, Mary Hoppe sat at a table near the large front window looking out on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. The center’s mascot, a black cat named Shirley Dean, wandered lazily about looking for attention. Despite the fact that the center was closed — PG&E had shut off power to do repair work — Hoppe talked busily on the phone to a client whom she assisted with supplemental security income forms. For Hoppe, 61, retirement was merely an excuse for a career change. Instead of working on her golf swing, Hoppe spent her newfound time earning her law degree. Now she practices law — exclusively pro bono — in the East Bay. After spending about 30 years importing antique furniture from Europe, Hoppe now splits her time working with the homeless and mentally ill at the Homeless Action Center, and with children at the Contra Costa Bar Association’s Guardianship Clinic. While many attorneys do pro bono work, Hoppe’s efforts seem impressive, especially when seen in context with the challenges she faces in her daily life. While studying for the LSAT, Hoppe found out she had Parkinson’s disease. “When you get something like that, you have to not let it limit you,” she said. On top of that, Hoppe spends a great deal of time and energy caring for a mentally ill member of her immediate family. Her personal experience with the mentally ill and her determination to overcome big obstacles give Hoppe an insight into her clients that directly translates to her work, colleagues say. Her dedication and skill with clients has won Hoppe a lot of admirers in the East Bay legal community. “We always have to decide: Is she our biggest fan or are we her biggest fan?” said Patricia Wall, director of the Homeless Action Center. While the legal work she does is rewarding, it is often heartbreaking, Hoppe said. Recently, she helped an 18-year-old homeless girl suffering from schizophrenia to obtain SSI benefits. After making real progress with the girl, the situation ended in tragedy. “After getting through the process, the girl turned up dead in an East Bay crack house,” Hoppe said sadly. “Cases like that make you more anxious to do the work,” she said. After learning of the girl’s death, Hoppe wrote the girl’s estranged parents a sympathy letter. “I wanted to give them a picture of how we had seen her, and our hopes for her.” Hoppe also volunteers at the Guardianship Clinic in the Contra Costa County Superior Court because, she said, “it’s a way of protecting children. The kids usually have no parents and come from families with no money.” The clinic provides assistance to pro se petitioners applying for guardianship. Many of the people whom she assists at the clinic already have a child in their care and are protecting them from an abusive parent, Hoppe said. She likes to feel that her work at the clinic helps provide a sense of stability for the children, whose lives are often complicated and disorderly. Right now the clinic consists of a table and chairs nestled in the corner of the court clerk’s office. Hoppe and other volunteers use the office while the clerk is in court. The clinic has had to fight to stay alive, and Hoppe has been instrumental in its survival. In addition to having no space of its own to operate, the guardianship clinic has had a tough time consistently staffing pro bono attorneys. “Over the summer, we didn’t have enough participation; I thought we were going to have to close up shop,” said Magda Lopez, a Richmond solo who runs the clinic for the pro bono section of the Contra Costa Bar Association. “Mary signed up for four or five clinics in a month. It’s wonderful to know she’ll come through in a pinch.” Hoppe has not only picked up the slack when the clinic needs an attorney, she is also working to secure funding so it can provide a wider range of services. Hoppe and Lopez would like to see the clinic become a one-stop shop for people petitioning for guardianship. Lopez said that if the clinic can successfully get funding, Hoppe would be its director. Hoppe grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a neighborhood near Sheepshead Bay. She went to Brooklyn College, majoring in economics. After marrying, she and her husband moved to Belgium and France, where they became involved in exporting furniture. The furniture business led them to San Francisco where they opened their antiques business. After three decades in the antiques business, Hoppe realized it was time for a change. She said she was attracted to law because there is a “basic fairness” to it, so she enrolled at Golden Gate University School of Law. Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she decided to continue with law school nevertheless. “You just have to go on and figure things will work out.”

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