WINTER GARDEN — When Anthony Hodge and Sharee Villard-Hodge began their street ministry at his old stomping grounds on the east side of Winter Garden, one Center Street resident was persistently honest with them: “We don’t want your preaching here.”
But the Hodges continued sharing the gospel around the neighborhood through their program, Finding the Lost Sheep Ministry, and now, more than a decade later, she is their biggest fan, Villard-Hodge said.
“It’s a wonderful story,” she said. “She didn’t want to hear the gospel, but we cultivated a relationship. We love her. God loves her.”
This is why the Hodges continue to do what they do, why they reach out “to feed and to be a light to God’s lost sheep,” Villard-Hodge said. “We serve the least of these.”
For nearly all of the 1980s and ’90s, the least of these included Anthony Hodge, who grew up in Winter Garden and became known as a drug user and dealer.
Today, Minister Anthony Hodge is drug-free and trying to guide people — those who are walking in his former shoes — toward a relationship with God.
Although it’s a street ministry, Finding the Lost Sheep has kept an outreach office on Center Street for the last few years. A sponsor donated the first year of rent. The Hodges are currently looking for a permanent place to call home. There is an old church building on Klondike Street, right next to the Maxey Community Center, that is theirs if they can come up with the $30,000 selling price.
Through fundraisers and the generosity of donors and sponsors, $15,000 has already been raised.
“These are people who have been following our ministry for about 10-plus years,” Villard-Hodge said. “They see the work that we’re doing in the community, and they’ve been longtime supporters of the ministry.”
A building is necessary, she said, because some of the area’s residents don’t feel comfortable going into another church, she said.
“A lot of them are still struggling with addiction and feelings of inadequacy, and they feel like they don’t look like what church members should look like,” Villard-Hodge said. “A lot of the people we minister on Center Street, they would come into our church on Sundays and Wednesdays because they have this connection with Anthony — out on the streets, doing drugs, gambling — before he was delivered. … He’s not going to look at them and judge them. Some of them aren’t cleaned up; some of them are cleaned up but are still struggling.
“They’ve lived the outcast lifestyle, but they would come into our church,” she said.
The Hodges have earned the trust of the residents and have built relationships through their regular church meetings and neighborhood revivals.
They have been blessed by generous donors, they said, who have provided a $7,000 tent for outdoor meetings, a truck and nine-foot trailer. They also have help from fellow board members Julie Ratliff, Lorraine Smith, Ken Kelly, Kenny Kelly, Josh Taylor and Reed Boardman.
To raise money for the building purchase, Finding the Lost Sheep is holding a spaghetti dinner fundraiser from 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday, March 29, at the Oakland Presbyterian Church, 218 E. Oakland Ave. There is no charge for the event, but donations are welcome. A contemporary singing group at the church will perform, and the Hodges will talk about the ministry and its various programs. RSVP at (407) 614-5942 or at [email protected]. Donations can be mailed to Finding the Lost Sheep Street Ministry, P.O. Box 770591, Winter Garden, FL 34777.
Another way to bring in funds is through a trendy thrift shop that Villard-Hodge is opening as part of the organization’s women’s ministry. It’s at 730 Ninth St., in a 1950s Craftsman-style house in Winter Garden, and will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday starting next week.
“The Lord was always sending me women who were going through issues: verbal abuse, mental, physical,” Villard-Hodge said. “(The shop) is an idea I had about 10 years ago; I love vintage and antiques and home décor. The name of the place is called Thrift 31 Boutique, and the name is from Proverbs 31,” which talks about virtuous women and a woman’s call to be industrious.
“That’s kind of the atmosphere that I want to cultivate,” she said. “I want to motivate women to be entrepreneurs, (to believe) that they can be whatever they want to be.”
The boutique will sell vintage and modern home accessories, dishes, furniture and clothing, she said. And like a true community outreach, this is a place for anyone who has been in trouble with the law and needs to complete community service hours.
Villard-Hodge is looking for donations of gently used clothing for the shop, and she accepts wood furniture, as well, because she has a few friends who like to strip down the wood and repaint it.
In addition to the thrift store and street ministry, Finding the Lost Sheep provides a jail ministry at the 33rd Street Jail in Orlando, offers a community children’s ministry and is working on a food pantry and men’s ministry — all to continue meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the lost.
One such children’s ministry is the upcoming Spring Break Bash for Kids, hosted from noon to 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, by West Orange Neighborhood Center for Families and Finding the Lost Sheep. Children ages 5 to 14 are invited.
The free event, to be held at the Mildred Dixon Center, 307 S. West Crown Point Road, Winter Garden, will include food courtesy of Kelly Foods, games, prizes, arts and crafts and a backpack giveaway with school supplies. A raffle will be held. For information, call Sharee Villard-Hodge at (407) 614-5942 or Lucy Richardson at (407) 254-1930.
Spring Break Bash for Kids
WHEN: noon to 3 p.m. March 25
WHERE: Mildred Dixon Center, 307 S. West Crown Point Road, Winter Garden
DETAILS: Hosted by West Orange Neighborhood Center for Families and Finding the Lost Sheep, this event will feature food, games, prizes and a backpack giveaway.
Spaghetti Dinner Fundraiser
WHEN: 6 to 8 p.m. March 29
WHERE: Oakland Presbyterian Church, 218 E. Oakland Ave., Oakland
DETAILS: This event will benefit Finding the Lost Sheep, and is sponsored by the Oakland Presbyterian Church Mission Committee.