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For Good: Benefit to raise funds, awareness for Tampa Bay area charity that feeds hungry

Leo Villanueva went undercover as a homeless person for four days in the summer of 2009, to learn more about their plight.

Leo Villanueva went undercover as a homeless person for four days in the summer of 2009, to learn more about their plight.

Leo Villanueva, GMA Dove Award winning and music minister at First United Methodist Church in Lutz.

Leo Villanueva went undercover as a homeless person for four days in the summer of 2009, to learn more about their plight.

For three nights and four days, Leonardo Villanueva chose a path that few would ever consider.

The suburban father of three became a homeless person in downtown Tampa – by choice.

That experience in the summer of 2009, which he documented on YouTube through a video blog called “Leo the Homeless Man,” would profoundly change his life.

“I had always had a heart for the homeless,” says Villanueva, worship arts director at First United Methodist Church in Lutz and GMA Dove Award winner. “But having compassion and truly understanding their plight are two different things. I needed to do this personally and spiritually.”

In just a few days, he learned about survival and challenges of doing without.  He heard stories firsthand from people who were once just like him, with a job and a family, but bad luck or circumstances landed them in a desperate situation. 

But what stood out the most during his short stint on the streets was the kindness and respect he got from the volunteers at Trinity Café, which has served more than 1.1 million quality meals to hungry and homeless men, women and children in a restaurant-like setting since opening in 2001.

After he returned to his family, he kept good on his promise to help Trinity in any way he could, first by volunteering and then with a benefit concert to raise funds for the nonprofit and awareness of the community’s homeless issues.

This week, Villanueva does it again.  

On Saturday, April 23rd, at 7 p.m., he will perform at his Lutz church for another benefit for the newly opened Trinity Café 2, which begins operations on April 25th.

Trinity Café 2, to be housed in the First Church of God, 2202 E. Busch Blvd. in north Tampa, is expected to draw 200 to 300 people for free meals weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Villanueva will be joined by gospel vocalist Scott Reynolds, international concert pianist Cliff Longcoy and the SWAG (Student Worship Art Academy) Dance Team, comprised of local middle- and high-school students. Admission is free, but donations will be collected in support of the new Trinity endeavor.

The program, which he promises will be high energy, includes a special tribute by Villanueva. He will perform an original song he wrote a few weeks ago dedicated to the volunteers called “The One Who Cares.”

“It’s my thank you to them, for all that they do,” he says.

He’s also hoping the benefit will draw people who don’t know about the Trinity mission or have an understanding about the homeless.

Ending hunger and homelessness

Three years ago, at the first benefit, Ellen Wolf came out of curiosity. After hearing the stories from Trinity guests and volunteers, she became a donor and volunteer at the charity. Now she will serve as the volunteer coordinator every Thursday at the new location.

“Ellen caught the vision,” Villanueva says. “All it takes is one person to catch it, and look how it can spread. We need to keep telling the Trinity story to raise awareness and what we can do as individuals to end hunger and homelessness in this community.”

Trinity Café program director Cindy Davis is grateful for the support. The organization depends on donations, in-kind services and supplies, grants and volunteers to accomplish its mission. With this upcoming expansion, the need for help increases.

Statistics show that Trinity and other similar organizations are in great demand. Approximately 2,000 people in Tampa are homeless, and more than 200,000 struggle with hunger and food insecurity. One in four is a child.

“Leonardo has walked in the shoes of the homeless and has great empathy for their plight,” Davis says. “We are blessed that he and many others are putting on this event to benefit our work.”

For Villanueva, it’s about keeping a promise he made years ago after his eyes and heart were opened to the plight of a population often dismissed or shunned. For all that he’s been given, he says it’s important to be grateful and to pay it forward.

“It seems hard to believe,” he says, “but we’re all just one bad day away from becoming homeless. Instead of judging others, we should show more kindness and compassion. That’s how we change the world, one step at a time.” 

Saturday’s concert takes place at First United Methodist Church, 960 Lutz Lake Fern Road, Lutz.

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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