Hank Lunsford's home away from home is Pahokee, a hardscrabble town just a short trip from the wealthy havens of Palm Beach. He heads to Pahokee from his residence in Sarasota at least every other month with a team of volunteers ready to help anyone in need. They repair roofs, rewire houses, fix plumbing and, when needed, bring canned goods to restock the Glades Area Pantry (GAP).
Hank Lunsford totes boxes of food donations into the Glades Area (Food) Pantry in Pahokee. 2013 photo by Susan Green, FLUMC.org.
Lunsford has made 18 trips to Pahokee since he discovered the plight of residents there while on a mission trip three years ago. He and other disaster recovery team members went to help disadvantaged Pahokee residents recover from lingering storm damage.
Pahokee has been in the bull's eye of some of Florida's worst storms. The Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 killed an estimated 2,000 Floridians and devastated the town once known as the "vegetable capital of the world." Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 slammed the community again, followed by Wilma in 2005.
But what struck Lunsford on his first trip -- and has kept him coming back -- is the dire poverty of the people who live in Pahokee.
"It's so very ironic. They are 30 miles from Palm Beach and yet they are the most poverty-stricken community I've ever seen," Lunsford says. "For the most part, they have given up hope."
On his latest four-day trip during Labor Day weekend, volunteers rewired an elderly woman's 60-year-old house.
"It's like a 100 wires were all tangled together," Lunsford says. "The worst is it had melted together. We completely rewired her home and it's safe."
The team also delivered more than 900 canned goods and 15 boxes of clothes to GAP. Before their arrival, Lunsford says, the pantry had run out of food two days in a row.
Lunsford lives his faith daily according to John Wesley's three general principles: Do no harm, do good and love God.
He is a member of Trinity UMC, Sarasota, and associate member at First UMC, Pahokee. He founded the nonprofit Crackers for Christ Missions Inc. to aid in collecting donations and materials for his missions.
Since the late 1990s, Lunsford's calling has been his work with disaster relief ministries.
He is a member of the United Methodist Emergency Response Team based at Sun City Center UMC. He often works with the team's leader, Earl Gall, and members, Marv Baden and Carmen DeLeon.
It all began when he left a teaching career and "was looking for something to do," Lunsford says. He sought guidance from his pastor, who asked him to step in as volunteer disaster response coordinator for the Hardee County Ministerial Association. He also served as volunteer Emergency Medical Technician and firefighter for the Wauchula Fire Department, also in Hardee.
"Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can." – Attributed to John Wesley
His mission in disaster relief, however, is firmly rooted in his experience with a church program that taught the biblical story of two men who met a stranger as they walked to the village of Emmaus on the third day following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They do not recognize Jesus until he breaks bread with them at a meal, and then he vanishes.
"You look and see what it is that God is wanting you to do," Lunsford says. "The more I got involved, the more I knew God needed me."
On one of many trips to Pahokee, Lunsford and his team of volunteers repaired a woman's nearly 50-year-old mobile home. It almost wasn't worth saving, but Lunsford says, "If she didn't have it, she'd be homeless."
He has been a servant at many natural disasters in Florida but has been called to help out also in Alabama and North Carolina.
In 2004, Hurricane Charley cut a swath through Central Florida. Lunsford remembers his trip to Arcadia, a particularly hard-hit city in DeSoto County.
"It was very chaotic," he says. "But with my military training and firefighter training, I just took over."
|Members of a mission team from Trinity UMC, Sarasota, help a Pahokee resident in need with repairs to a damaged mobile home. Photo from Hank Lunsford.|
In 2012 he helped rebuild a home in Pleasant Grove, Alabama, after a tornado. He remembers television crews trailing after Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley when the governor stopped by to see their progress.
His volunteer work is a family tradition for this fifth-generation Floridian who grew up in Gainesville. His parents set the example.
"I grew up in that kind of family," Lunsford says. "There is a way to make your own life happy by making others happy."
His home base is Sarasota where he lives with his wife of 15 years, Natasha. He has a grown daughter, Alicia Lunsford, who lives in Daytona Beach.
Lunsford is far from a typical retiree. He works full time as clinical equipment manager at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota. The nurses there call him "the chief of stuff."
He gets the nurses what they need to do their jobs. And, in Pahokee, each time a mission trip ends, Lunsford walks around the town and does an inventory, looking at what his volunteers need to do on their next visit.
Each mission also ends with a prayer and a hymn.
"We have had the experience of changing lives there," Lunsford says. "I've also had people [volunteers] who went there who say, 'It has changed my life.’"
Even some who never pound a nail or patch a roof are touched by the work in Pahokee.
Lunsford on occasion holds church services at a local nursing home. He at first declined a request to pass a collection plate but finally agreed if the money went toward mission work.
"The people who never leave the nursing home became a part of my mission," he said. "It has been a positive thing for them. They have a purpose."
Interested in becoming a United Methodist disaster recovery volunteer? Check out the Florida Conference Disaster Recovery ministry page for information.
– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.