MANATEE — A number of people have made it their mission to feed the homeless in Manatee County.
But one 20-year-old woman takes her ministry even further.
Leslie Byle, a waitress at The Terrace Beach Cafe at Caruso Road and State Road 70 East, uses her tips to buy food for the homeless she meets in downtown Bradenton by the courthouse.
But she also offers the homeless friendship, caring, support and a determined zeal to see them get off the streets.
Working through The Front, a para-church outreach led mostly by college-age students and based at 6802 14th St. W. in Whitfield Plaza and through First Assembly of God on State Road 70, Byle has set the bar high in addressing what volunteers can do for the homeless.
Byle has helped six or seven homeless people get off the streets and into programs, said Michelle Skorski, co-director of The Front with her husband, John.
“Leslie has been part of our group for three years or more, and she is one of our leaders and heads up our homeless ministry,” Skorski said. “She just has a heart of compassion for people, and I think that’s why she is so effective. We are not really doing a feeding program through Leslie. We are building relationships.”
Byle and a group of about 12 young people take the homeless to doctor’s appointments, to rehab and to anywhere else they need to go.
If the homeless end up in jail one night, Byle and her group go there, too.
Byle’s volunteers stick to the homeless like glue until they realize, as she puts it, “the Lord has greater plans for them and that he will never leave or forsake them.”
Byle’s group hits the ground at 4:30 p.m. every Friday at First Assembly of God, where the Manassa family, including Pastor Mike Manassa and his wife, Becky, run the church and open their kitchen to Byle and her colleagues, Skorski said.
They pray and worship for an hour. Then, they prepare hot dogs in tin foil and punch. The food is not the most important thing, Byle said.
“What’s important is that we don’t give up on them,” Byle said of the homeless. “We visit them in jail. We visit them in Manatee Glens. We visit them in the homeless shelter. “
Her zeal is unmistakable.
“The Lord told me that we can love these people back to life,” Byle said in her always excited voice of her approach to the homeless she meets. “They have forgotten they should live abundantly. They don’t know they can be addicted to the Lord and his beautiful presence. They don’t know you can have pain-free joy and peace and it comes from the Lord.”
Byle is from Grand Rapids, Mich., but came to Bradenton five years ago with her parents, David and Crystal Byle. The Byles own Bradenton’s Countertop Creations. Leslie Byle graduated from Lakewood Ranch High School in 2008 and immediately went on a mission trip with Youth with a Mission to Switzerland.
She has also traveled in India.
Byle came home charged up. She wanted to help overseas, but she also wanted to help the local poor.
She visited strip clubs to talk to the dancers. She went to bars and met people on the streets who were high on drugs. She passed out food but always felt there had to be more she could do.
She said her calling came to her in a flash.
“I realized that prayer is more important than food,” Byle said. “I needed for these people to see that I had been with Jesus and that they could have what I have.”
Sometimes the homeless will cry when they see “these nice church people” show up at the Manatee Jail.
“They can’t believe we would actually come to see them in jail,” Byle said. “I think it is that moment when their hearts finally grow soft and they seem able to understand His unfailing love.”
For more information about Byle’s ministry, call 779-3296 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, Ext. 6686.