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  NEW TOWNS
SUMMER 2006
 

Miracle Man, Community-Builder
After a near-death experience left him unable to care for himself, Jeff Kuntz turned to helping others.

If you were to pitch Jeff Kuntz's story as a screenplay, even Hollywood might consider it too improbable to be believed. Seven years ago, before he was a path-clearing new urban developer in eastern Washington, before he and his partners had established a lifeline for Spokane's most troubled citizens, Jeff Kuntz died and was reborn.

It was a frigid morning, Dec. 22, 1998, in Athol, Idaho, and Kuntz was doing his job as an independent contractor servicing billboards, the only means of support for himself, his wife and their five kids, the youngest only 13 days old. Working 40 feet above ground on a billboard he had serviced many times before, the 10-foot metal pole he was using suddenly came in contact with a power line that had not been there in the past. In one searing instant, 17,000 volts jolted him from his perch and flung him to the ground. According to medical experts who testified in a later lawsuit, the shock almost certainly stopped his heart, meaning he was clinically dead until his 220-pound frame hit the ground and his heart restarted. That was miracle number one.

"I woke up three minutes later, blood pumping out of my mouth, smoke coming off my leg," Kuntz recalls. "I had my 18-year-old brother and another kid working with me, and they stopped a nurse driving along the highway. It wasn't long before they had the highway blocked and a helicopter landing."

But survival was by no means assured. His hands and forearms fried by the electricity, Kuntz also had a crushed pelvis, a back broken in three spots and one leg broken in six places. "They were able to keep me going in a drug-induced coma. They brought my family in to say good-bye because they didn't think I'd make it.

"I woke up six days after the accident. My dad was by my bed crying. I opened my eyes and was worried about him because I'd never seen him cry. He explained that I'd been in an accident, they'd had to amputate both my arms, and the doctor said I'd never walk again."

Kuntz was 30 years old, a once-active young man with little post-high school education who had always made his living with his hands. While he had health coverage for his kids, he had no insurance to cover his own injuries. To top it all off, two years later, his marriage ended.

Though he had every right to retreat into despair and depression, Kuntz instead is using his second chance at life to bring hope to others. Flash forward to 2006, two years after Kuntz has won a multi-million dollar settlement with Kootenai Electric Cooperative and Lamar Outdoor Advertising for his injuries. Kuntz has remarried, and his wife, Lisa, along with a friend, Glen Lanker, have started Overcomer Outreach. The Christian-oriented -- though nondenominational -- nonprofit organization provides homes, meals, job training and drug rehabilitation in West Central Spokane, a poor, crime-ridden district dubbed Felony Flats by the local police. "We help primarily drug addicts, prostitutes, homeless and low-income families," Kuntz says. In the last nine months of 2005, Overcomer distributed more than 300,000 pounds of food, as well as winter coats and other necessities.

But Overcomer tries to provide more than mere physical sustenance by helping to build community through weekly barbecues, musical performances, holiday events, Bible studies and activities at the local elementary school. "Everything we do is relationship building," Kuntz says. Using his own money and donations, Kuntz and company have purchased a 14-bedroom mansion that is being renovated to house recovering addicts while offering job training, drug rehab, and mentoring. Overcomer also has a triplex for housing homeless youths, some of whom are single parents.

So how does a man who can barely care for himself, help others?

"I guess I'm the brains behind the operation," he says, laughing. "Some call me a visionary. And because of the money I got from the settlement I was able to get it set up with the buildings. I am gifted in the area of business, so I've been able to get this ministry going where it's self-funding to some extent, supported by a fairly successful thrift store."

It's clear from even a brief conversation that what Kuntz most has to offer is his spirit: positive, giving, joyful, indomitable. While much of that comes from his faith in God, Kuntz says Overcomer does not exist to proselytize. "We're all faith-based people, but it's not about cramming it down people's throats," he says. "It's really a humanitarian operation. I wouldn't consider this doing religion for the sake of religion, making people think like we do."

His communitarian impulse also drew him to the proposal to develop Hayden Canyon, a 600-plus-acre, 1,800-home expansion of the small northern Idaho town of Hayden (see cover story, this issue). "I live in what they call sprawl. It's really disjointed; nobody knows their neighbors. Every day I drive home and I'm in my cul-de-sac," Kuntz says. "You kind of have that sense of community in the ghetto we're working in, because people need each other. When incomes go up, people think they don't need other people. A lot of them don't know what they're missing, but at Hayden Canyon they'll get to experience more of a community."

The mixed-income project will provide low-income rentals, as well as top-dollar houses, with live/work units and a town center, all of which will be accessible to him and others who get around in wheelchairs. If the project is successful, Kuntz would like to take his approach to community building to other cities and states, and even other countries. It's hard work to build an organization and a neighborhood while helping to rebuild shattered lives all at the same time, but it's the work that keeps him going, he says.

"The way the average person looks at life, the quality of life in my condition is intolerable," says Kuntz. "If I didn't have faith in God and a community to be part of, I would have cashed my chips in then and there. But I'm a very positive person. My life is good."

On the web: Hayden Canyon http://www.haydencanyon.com