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Faith leads woman to give help to the homeless

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Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 02:54 AM
BRANDON -

She has such a whimsical name: Lela Lilyquist.

But there's nothing fanciful or far-off dreamy about this woman.

Lilyquist is a force of nature. She knows how to get things done.

For 14 years, she's owned Nature's Health Foods in Brandon, negotiating the tricky world of consumer habits, small business and a roller-coaster economy. Before that, she worked for a decade as a surgical technologist in the operating room at Tampa General Hospital. Trauma was one of her specialties.

She will be the first to tell you that she loves people.

Now she's found her true calling. And it's her biggest challenge yet.

Lilyquist is the founder of Portamento of Hope, a comprehensive homeless resource center in Brandon. The nonprofit effort specifically focuses on homeless men.

Eighteen months ago, this was not something she would have imagined doing. But she thinks the divine hand of God brought her to this place.

It began when she and her husband, Floyd, bought property at Parsons Avenue and Mason Street with plans to open another health food store in a building that was an antiques store.

Around the same time, she read a newspaper article about Hillsborough County's ever-growing homeless population - an estimated 9,500 - and how Brandon was in dire need of a soup kitchen.

Some of us might have just gone on to another article. Not Lilyquist. Looking at those numbers, she realized something needed to be done. It's an epidemic, she thought, and this recession is only going to make it worse.

"Up until then, I hadn't thought too much about it," she says. "I've seen them on the street corners with signs. I've seen them on their bicycles. I've accepted them as part of our society. But for some reason, this time my heart was touched."

Because a road-widening project was expected to delay her plans to open a store, Lilyquist started thinking about the property and its buildings. She made a few calls and got some estimates on what it would take to put a kitchen in one of the cottages.

A contractor from Nativity Catholic Church was touched by her vision and offered to help. Others pitched in. They got the permits and began the transformation. A year ago, Portamento of Hope opened, with volunteers cooking and serving donated food Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at lunchtime. They're now averaging about 120 diners a week.

"Most people spend their lives trying to better their personal situation," says volunteer Trissie Burgett. "Not Lela. She gives all her time and energy to make life better for others."

The story doesn't end here. Lilyquist's vision is so much bigger.

She wants to give the homeless a hand up, not just a handout. Not all are capable of or willing to change their situations. But for those who desperately want out of this vicious cycle, Portamento of Hope aims to be a vehicle to get them out.

If you visit the property at 107 Mason St., you will see the vision at work. A bountiful garden maintained by Billy Bryant, formerly homeless and now living on the property, provides some of the vegetables served in the cafe. Others are harvested and sold at a roadside stand in front of the property.

A thrift store will open soon where people will be able to buy used clothing suitable for job hunting at bargain-basement prices. Local artists will sell their original arts and crafts, with a portion of the proceeds dedicated to Portamento of Hope. Plans also are under way to open a tutoring center where kids and adults will be able to work on donated computers.

To make this all possible, Lela and Floyd Lilyquist had to dip into her retirement savings. She's invested about $40,000 so far - a figure that would be a lot higher if she didn't have corporate sponsors such as Home Depot and dozens of volunteers to help.

"Helping out here has taught me not to take everything I have for granted," says Lisa Smith of Valrico, who began volunteering at the cafe three months ago. A pediatric emergency nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital, she sees pain, heartache, joy and survival in her professional life. But like Lilyquist, she became bothered by the number of desperate people she saw living on the streets.

"It's given me a better understanding of the challenges people face, which is making me a better nurse," she says. "And they're very appreciative of what we're doing. They thank me all the time."

Tuesday, Lilyquist will go before the Hillsborough County Commission to testify on the cost of incarcerating the homeless. She estimates the county spends about $4 million annually locking up street people for victimless crimes such as loitering and trespassing.

With Floyd running their store, Lela is able to stay focused on Portamento of Hope. One day, she hopes to get grants and more reliable funding to keep expanding the program. She doesn't think she'll ever open a second Nature's Food. She's found a new purpose.

And this community is so much better because of it.

SATURDAY MORNING MARKET

WHAT: Donated items, clothing, crafts, fresh produce. Specialty art by local artisans include duct tape pillows and sea-glass jewelry. All proceeds benefit the homeless.

WHEN: 8:30 to 11 a.m. Saturdays beginning Aug. 8

WHERE: Portamento of Hope, 107 Mason St., Brandon

INFORMATION: To learn about the program and how you can help with the wish list, go to http://portamento ofhope.com or call (813) 493-9644.


See the program in action on Michelle Bearden's "Keeping the Faith" segment at 9 a.m. Sunday on News Channel 8. We're looking for more Good Hearts. If you know someone who is making a difference, e-mail mbearden @tampatrib.com or write to Michelle Bearden

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