For Lewis Long, volunteering at Sun ‘n Fun has been a life-changing experience.
The formerly homeless man, who kicked around most of the country before settling in Lakeland, Fla., has been volunteering for six years now. The first year he volunteered for just two days, but he was “hooked” right away.
“I felt for the first time in my life that somebody needed me,” he said. “And that somebody was anybody who happened to come by.”
After years of living on the streets and trying to stay unnoticed by society, Long has found that volunteering at Sun ‘n Fun has brought him out of his shell. “I’m a fun guy. I like to make people smile,” he said, taking a moment to check the wristbands of campers using the Nature Trail to head to the exhibits. “This isn’t an important gate, but it is one of the main entrances,” he said with a touch of pride.
His sense of responsibility grew after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he noted. “Before it was all fun and games, but now we really do have to pay attention,” he said.
Dealing with people is the No. 1 reason Long enjoys his volunteering duties at Sun ‘n Fun. “Most of the people who come through here are in a good mood,” he said. But Long notes that most people miss the true experience of Sun ‘n Fun by leaving too early. He recalled that he stayed for several days last year after the event ended and even though the trash left behind — discarded wristbands and “a beer from somebody’s good time” — made him sad, he enjoyed the experience of being there for the whole show.
“Today is like dawn,” he said on the day before the show opened. “The sun is coming up and people are just getting here and scurrying around trying to get ready. Each day it will get busier and busier and then on the last day it will be like dusk.”
That analogy to nature is perfect for Long’s post near the Nature Trail, which includes flowers, trees and other native foliage. It begins with a butterfly garden, complete with benches for relaxing. A boardwalk winds through the woods, creating a quiet — and cool — respite from the craziness of Sun ‘n Fun. Signs along the boardwalk point out the different plant varieties, from muscadine grapevines to the Cabbage Palm, Florida’s state tree, bringing Sun ‘n Fun’s dedication to education even to a walk in the woods.
“This morning when I first arrived, I could hear the birds and saw a spider making its way through the woods,” Long said. “I’ve also seen a fox, snakes and some rabbits.”
Manning the Nature Trail entrance does have its drawbacks, Long noted. “It’s always raining caterpillars,” he said. “And I can’t see too much of the air show because of the trees.”
But that’s OK, because Long’s real enjoyment of the show is making new friends and helping visitors to the fly-in find their way.
“Sun ‘n Fun has changed my life 150%,” he said before turning to answer yet another question about the Nature Trail.
Janice Wood is editor of General Aviation News.