MANATEE -- Born in Highland Park, Mich., in 1916, Florence Lundy turned 98 at her home Monday in Tropic Isles Mobile Home Park on Snead Island in Palmetto.
This nonagenarian, who has lived in Manatee County since 1980, will celebrate her birthday by refusing to order a new rocking chair.
Instead, the sharp as a razor and always moving Lundy will spend her birthday making phone calls to raise money for one of the most unusual charity events in Manatee County every year: the Southeastern Guide Dogs Walkathon.
Unlike most charity events where people labor a month or two to raise money for a not-for-profit, the Palmetto-based Southeastern Guide Dogs, which kicked off its 2015 Walkathon on Friday, gives volunteers a whopping five-month lead time.
Lundy is starting to raise money for now for a walkathon scheduled Feb. 21 at Bradenton's Rossi Park on the Riverwalk. Sarasota's walkathon is set for March 21 at Payne Park.
"The reason we start so early is that we need teams, families and friends to build momentum in order to hit our goal," said Nina Ionati, walkathon manager. "This is the largest, most strategic fundraiser that we have and we rely on it a lot."
With 115 paid staff and seven buildings to maintain daily, along with 100 dogs annually in the program and 400 active teams of people and dogs, Southeastern Guide Dogs has an annual budget of more than $8 million, Ionati said.
The 2015 goal of $886,000
will be collected from walkathons in seven sites through April, including Bradenton, St. Petersburg, The Villages, Sarasota, Orlando, Fort Myers and Tampa. That represents about a 10th of the nonprofit's annual budget, Ionati said.
Southeastern's fundraiser is unique and so is Lundy, one of its top volunteers.
Lundy, who also volunteers at Manatee Memorial Hospital's Auxiliary Thrift Shop on Manatee Avenue West, started volunteering for Southeastern in 1983 a short time after the guide dog school opened.
"Back then, the school had one building and just a few employees," Lundy said.
Lundy and other volunteers from Tropic Isles baked casseroles for the Southeastern campus volunteers and staff, she said. In 1991, Lundy decided to become a one-woman dynamo for the walkathon through her fundraising "team," which involved her neighbors at Tropic Isles.
Led by Lundy, Tropic Isles has raised $60,214 since 1991, according to Southeastern officials.
Lundy still passes around a cup at coffee hour at Tropic Isles to raise money for the dogs.
Old dogs, new tricks
Lundy said if someone in Manatee County has never volunteered, the Southeastern Guide Dogs 2015 Walkathon is a good place to start.
"If you have never tried to volunteer, try this," Lundy said.
Bradenton's goal for the walkathon is $165,000, Ionati added.
Last year, Bradenton volunteers raised $155,000 and the entire 2014 Walkathon, which was then only five sites, raised $665,000, Ionati said. Southeastern Guide Dogs is also a sensible charity for a family with children because of the puppy-raising aspect of the organization. The not-for-profit needs puppy raisers and fund-raisers.
"Southeastern Guide Dogs has more than 250 puppy raisers in 30 cities, but we're always looking for more," Ionati said. "Volunteer raisers agree to welcome a future guide dog into their homes for basic obedience training and socialization. Puppy raisers take these puppies everywhere, to work, out to eat, on trips and even grocery shopping."
This real-world training imitates the experiences a guide dog needs, Ionati said. Raisers begin their role when a puppy is approximately 10 weeks old. At 14 to 20 months, the puppies return to the Palmetto campus for formal harness training.
To form a team for the walkathon, go toguidedogswalkathon.org, guidedogs.org or for puppy raising go to guidedogs.org/volunteer/raise-a-puppy.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.