By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – It’s always difficult to return to the place you called home after you have changed your address and your identity. It’s especially difficult when your home was a park bench. But that’s what Lety Gonzalez did earlier this year when the former homeless woman returned to the Lincoln Oval in Visalia to help others find God and get off the streets.
It was just five years ago that Lety was begging for cash on the streets north of downtown. She spent her days looking for creative ways to get drugs and her nights trying to find a warm spot to call her own.
“I checked out of the world and into the streets,” Lety said. “I was addicted, broken and just let everything go.”
In 2013, Lety was ready for a change and it came in the form of a missionary. The woman offered to take Lety in, feed her, clothe her and teach her about the Lord and asked her to serve for an organization called Gleanings for the Hungry. Once her body was detoxed and her mind focused, the woman convinced Lety to do discipleship training in Kenya, far away from the distractions of the broken life she needed to leave behind. In 2015 she returned to the United States and help others find a way out of the Oval but wasn’t ready to return to the place she once called home. After a year of preparing to immerse herself back into the place that caused so much pain, she decided to begin reaching out to her former park mates. For the last six months she has been religiously spending every Sunday at the Oval ministry subtly by offering the homeless there food, clothing and backpacks to carry their things.
“They let me in because they know me and they know I’ve been there and I get it,” Lety said. “The people who live there are very territorial and not just anyone can go in and do what I do.”
Since that time, Lety has helped several people seek assistance, enroll in programs and take on tasks toward the goal of getting off the streets. But it is difficult to fund giveaways for the homeless. That’s when Lety turned to SOUP, not warm broth, but a an invitation to fund a community project.
On Oct. 20, Lety became the second non-profit group to be the beneficiary of Visalia SOUP, a community-based crowdfunding dinner. Modeled after a program in Detroit, Mich., attendees paid a minimum donation of $5 to get into the event held at the Tulare County Office of Education headquarters on South Mooney Boulevard. Those donations, along with a donation from the City of Visalia, goes into a pot of money that is given to the night’s winner.
Those in attendance heard four-minute pitches from four non-profits. First was Godfrey Torres representing Best Foot Forward. The program’s goal is to provide a carry on bag and personalized luggage tag to children in the foster care system. These children are moved from house to house, many times moving their limited belongings via a trash bag. Godfrey would like to provide them with a bag to instill a sense of ownership and a small piece of stability in their lives.
Next up was Alekhya Rajasekaran, a freshman in high school, who presented her business idea, Kalifornia Kisses, an all natural, organic lipstick company that donates 10% of its proceeds to helping restore the environment and helping kids in need. Each lipstick represents a different, yet iconic part of California’s landscape with each lipstick’s vibrant shade. Several in the audience expressed how impressed they were with Alekhya’s professionalism and delivery of her presentation.
Alberto Ramos presented the Foster Youth Transition Success Initiative, a fund through CASA of Tulare County that would benefit transitional age youth in Visalia who are our most vulnerable citizens. This would include both items needed to become financially independent as well as items that acknowledge achievements and recognition of major milestones. Specifically, Alberto mentioned two brothers in high school who, despite their traumatic upbringing, have been excelling in school and he would like to reward them with class rings, as a reminder of their achievements and to encourage their future efforts.
After hearing the proposals, including Lety’s, attendees voted for who they thought should win the pot of money. Lety’s Hood Outreach Ministry was the winner of the $547 pot. Lety said she will use the money to continue her outreach to the homeless, elderly, and youth in the Oval park in the northside of Visalia. She and her husband distribute snacks, bottled water, clothing and prayer to those in need. She is hoping to use the money to purchase gloves, blankets, beanies and backpacks to carry them to homeless at the Oval so that they can keep warm through the winter.
“I needed those things when I was out there but more than that it is an ice breaker to get them talking,” said the 43-year-old missionary. “By bringing something to them we can build trust and most of all let them know that someone cares.”
Lety said anyone interested in donating to Hood Outreach Ministry can call her at 559-805-6070 or make a donation at GoFundMe.com/hood-outreach-ministry. To learn more about her ministry, visit Ministry Hood Style on Facebook.
Anyone interested in donating to any of the four presenters or learning more about presenting their own idea at the next SOUP can do so by contacting the Visalia Chamber by calling 559-734-5876 or emailing [email protected].