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Volunteer lands his dream job as Irma construction coordinator

Volunteer lands his dream job as Irma construction coordinator

Disaster Recovery

Disaster Recovery construction coordinator Hank Lunsford. --Photo by Ed Scott

It was the middle of January 2010 and Hank Lunsford came home to find his suitcase packed and sitting in the front yard.

What was wrong? Lunsford wondered. Had he forgotten his anniversary or his wife Natasha's birthday? No and no.

Lunsford tip-toed into the house and meekly said, “Hi,” to his wife of 10 years.

“What are you doing here? Aren't you leaving?” Natasha, a native of Ukraine, asked, pointedly. “Why am I leaving?” he responded. “There was an earthquake in Haiti today,” she said.

Natasha understands and appreciates that Lunsford is committed to mission work.

“It's a very good relationship that we have,” Lunsford said recently. “She knows that I'm doing God's work, and she's thrilled to death to do what she can to help.”

Last year Lunsford, who has spent many years doing volunteer mission work in rural Florida, was named by the Florida Conference as a construction coordinator for Hurricane Irma-related long-term disaster recovery projects in six Central Florida counties.

His territory stretches from Hendry (Lake Okeechobee) to Polk County. Conference officials expect Irma-related construction projects to continue for three to five years.

During the last week of February, Lunsford was working on a storm-damaged manufactured home in Zolfo Springs, about 50 miles east of Bradenton, with a six-member mission team from the Michigan Area of the UMC. A team of 44 will be coming soon from Indiana.

Lunsford jokes that he has a “spotted” background, from serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and managing a job service office to teaching at a disaster response academy and at schools. A member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Sarasota, Lunsford also owned a miniature horse ranch. He worked at Doctors Hospital in Sarasota for 17 years, primarily in wound care and with specialty equipment.

Throughout the past 20 years, Lunsford has gone on three to five mission trips annually to places like Pahokee, Florida, which – located on the banks of low-lying Lake Okeechobee – floods nearby homes as a result of heavy rain.

Zack Pohopin and Disaster Recovery construction coordinator Hank Lunsford discuss plans for reconstructing a room.            --Photo by Ed Scott

In Zolfo Springs, he and the Michigan team reconstructed a home while the owners lived in a Federal Emergency Management Agency-supplied travel trailer in the backyard.

When officials determine the conference should look into repairing a particular home, they call the construction coordinator for that disaster recovery zone, one of five such zones in the conference. Lunsford and those with similar jobs in other zones work up cost estimates for materials to repair the homes or declare that they are too damaged to be repaired by volunteer labor.

“Sometimes I have to say no,” Lunsford said, mindful that for some homeowners, lacking insurance and being rejected for funds by FEMA, United Methodist relief efforts are a last resort.

It's not often that someone lands a dream job at age 76, but that's what happened to Lunsford when he started in the coordinator position on Dec. 26, 2017. “The first paycheck I got, I felt like it was sinful to take it,” he said. “I never dreamed that God would get me a job that I loved so much. I spend the whole day doing things for people who can't do for themselves.”

He'd spend the whole night, too, if he could. And, he comes close. That's because Lunsford chooses to bunk with the mission teams that work with him for nearly a week at a time. Most recently, he and the Michigan team stayed overnight at First United Methodist Church of Sebring.

“He's a dedicated volunteer and employee, and he's just one of those kinds of people you run into who keeps giving,” Michigan mission team member Mike Skelton said.

During and after Irma, as the nearby Peace River filled up, a creek flooded the log cabin-like home the team is reconstructing near the end of a long, gravel road in rural Hardee County. The community was under five feet of water.

The walls, furniture, appliances and many other features of the home were ruined. Two churches anonymously donated about $5,000 for construction materials. Then, Lunsford and the mission teams stepped in to provide labor.

Lunsford likes to regale Northern-residing team members with stories about Florida Crackers of past centuries. But when he reflected on previous disaster recovery efforts in Pahokee, with Trinity UMC, there were holes in his stories: holes in the roofs and holes in the floors of homes lacking windows and doors. Construction efforts varied, depending on the extent of the damage.

Sometimes they didn't make it pretty, he said, but “we made it practical and safe.”

That's his goal with the conference projects.

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.

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