Sandra Sims Terry will spend her last day Thursday as executive director of the association she helped start.

LAUREL — Michael D. Fluker grew up in Zuber, a small unincorporated community in northern Marion County, near Ocala.

That may have prepared him to succeed Sandra Sims Terry as executive director of the Laurel Civic Association more than anything he learned while becoming a self-help author and motivational speaker; working his way up through the accounting world; and in his previous job as executive director of the Suncoast Center for Independent Living.

“I’d admired Sandra’s work from afar,” Fluker, 48, said. “I’m from a small town originally — smaller than Laurel.

“I’d seen the accomplishments Sandra had made in the community, and I thought to myself, ‘If my community had that opportunity, some other peers may have gone further in life,’” he added. “I was inspired to build on the foundation that she laid.

“I admired the holistic approach that Laurel Civic and Sandra adopted in meeting the needs of the community.”

At a crossroads

After graduating from North Marion High School, Fluker earned his associate’s degree in computer science at Central Florida Community College, as well as a bachelor’s degree in business administration from St. Leo University, at its Ocala Education Center.

The first in his family to finish college, Fluker worked in retail after graduation and suffered bouts of depression.

“I was at a crossroads, I will say it that way,” Fluker said. “My financial picture did not match my educational level.”

It was then, in 1996, that he decided to move to Sarasota with $100 in his pocket and an orange suitcase from his grandmother.

“I didn’t have a place to stay,” Fluker said. “At that time, I joined the Westcoast Center and they made arrangements for housing for me, so Laurel Civic’s outreach to people who are homeless or near homeless — who have challenges accessing health care, education assistance for the children — those things resonate with me, because I’ve been there.

“You see the tie now, the shirt,” he added. “But what you didn’t see was the orange suitcase my grandma donated to me when I moved here, what you don’t know is the tears that my mom and grandmom made when I said ‘I’m going to Sarasota, because I believe in my heart that there could be a better life for me than the one that I had.’”

Bishop Henry Porter, then pastor of the Westcoast Center for Human Development, became Fluker’s mentor and urged him to get into business or accounting.

Fluker started as an accounting clerk. As he received additional training and earned promotions, he eventually worked his way into the nonprofit sector and up to his previous role at SCIL.

He also worked as a consultant and motivational speaker and authored several self-published books.

One book, “The Stewardship Model,” was inspired by his own journey to Sarasota. Another, “The Growing of You,” offers principles to succeed with talents you already possess.

Fluker said the balance he received from the church helped center and taught him “that there’s more value to my life that what might be seen on the outside.

“I’ve adopted that same mentality in serving people here,” he added. “They are people first — they may be a person who have challenges with homelessness but they are a person first.

“I think sometimes, people tend to get the labels reversed. They see ‘homeless’ before ‘person.’”

Easing the transition

For the past three months, Fluker has been training with Terry, whose last active day is Thursday, though she will continue on as a paid executive director emeritus for the next three years — with a donation above and beyond the nonprofit’s normal budget used to compensate her.

“One of the first things that Sandra did, when we connected, was she took me on a tour of the community,” Fluker said. “I’m very grateful for that, because that gave me some insight that I didn’t have.”

Terry, who has always stressed that the association is a grassroots effort, added, “I gave him the big Laurel tour — the one that starts at Oscar Scherer and ends at Dona Bay.”

Along the way, she pointed out the different neighborhoods and landmarks and stressed the multiple collaborations that have been nurtured with area schools, businesses and nonprofits.

Fluker, who lives in the city of Sarasota, said that helped him get a sense of the community, as well as his role on the job.

He has also spent time getting to know the children who spent their summer days at the Sandra Sims Terry Community Center, attending reading program, camp and teen empowerment programs — even accompanying them on field trips to the FBI office in Tampa and Busch Gardens.

At the Suncoast Center for Independent Living, Fluker was charged with shepherding a nonprofit that empowers people with disabilities to live independently. The philosophies and skills he used there will translate well for his new role but it’s not an exact fit.

“I think for me, the biggest thing that I had to learn in the process — and I’m still learning and will continue to learn — this job requires a lot,” Fluker said. “It requires a lot in the sense that there are a variety of needs in this community, and in order to be able to properly meet the needs of the community — both adults and children — it’s essential that you recognize going in, there’s more than what’s going on in the surface.

“One of the distinct advantages Sandra had in building the organization is that she was connected and remains connected,” he added. “As a result of being connected, that allows you to not only acquire resources but reach out and acquire resources through collaboration.”

Deep community roots

The Laurel Civic Association started in 1969, out of a collaboration between a group of neighbors who sought to bring street lights to the community.

Except for a six-month stint in Massachusetts in 1970 after she got married, the 71-year-old Terry has called Laurel home.

Under her auspices, the civic association received a grant from Sarasota County that allowed her to retire from her job as a business service representative at General Telephone Co. and devote all of her time to the Laurel Civic Association.

It will celebrate 30 years as a nonprofit in October and 50 years as an organization on Nov. 2.

Terry, who took time to prepare a written statement, noted, “Nothing lasts forever; that is the nature of life, but a tree is still a tree no matter how old it gets or how long it lives,” she wrote, then went on to praise volunteers as “golden” and donors as “beyond golden and we thank each and every one of them for supporting us and allowing us to do all the good we can.”

Taking note of a near-empty bookshelf, Fluker hopes to reach out to supporters to help fill it with updated books to inspire the youths who use the community center.

“I have some scholastic reader books, I have some graphic novels,” he said. “I want to get books that children are interested in reading, sports figure books, entertainers, historical figures.

“When I look around, I see potential,” he continued, turning to a room full of youths working with tutors. “I see musicians, I see actors, I see CEOs I see a future president.

“That’s what I see and that’s what I want to impart to the children.”