The great mission of Habitat for Humanity has been on my mind because its founder, Millard Fuller, recently passed away. He was a friend of my father’s, and also a friend of my sister Betsie, who lived near the Fuller family at Koinonia Farms in the 1960’s. Millard’s inspiration for the idea of Habitat for Humanity grew out of volunteer building projects in Koinonia Farm’s tight-knit community.
I corresponded with Millard a little in regards to specific building projects, but I didn’t meet him until 1998, a year after my father died. Millard told me that he and my father had written many hundreds of letters to each other. I was shocked by that, but Millard had a good explanation. He said that both he and my father always punctually answered their correspondence and neither of them knew how to stop the back and forth flow.
Millard (and his wife Linda) founded Habitat for Humanity (HfH) in 1976. Since then, one family at a time, one house at a time, HfH has made a huge impact on tens of thousands of lives throughout the world. Today, Habitat for Humanity has built more than 300,000 homes, housing more than 1.5 million people in more than 3,000 communities worldwide. Millard was the force of nature whose vision, energy and perseverance made this happen. Of course he didn’t do it alone, but it wouldn’t have happened without him.
Over the years, I have worked on a number of Habitat for Humanity homes, including several big “blitz builds” in which homes are built at an accelerated pace. The last one I worked on with our local community (almost 500 volunteers) was built in eight days from foundation to completion.
I am as proud of that home as any our company has built in the last 35 years. It was built with the same spirit of collective pride, neighborliness, and generosity that built most of the houses, barns, churches and town halls in the early years of our country. When we once again reach out to our neighbors and build homes this way, it’s a reminder of who we are as Americans, as humans. The layers of quality, authenticity, dignity and beauty built into that home—like most HfH homes–seem endless, though it is equally simple, plain and humble.
I am a builder because I know from personal experience the transformative difference that a good quality home can make to the lives of individuals and families. But in the special partnership of Habitat for Humanity projects, the builders and the homeowners seem to benefit equally. Millard knew this to be a fact and a strategy. Knowing that there were no losers in the philanthropy and volunteerism that builds homes for needy families, he was always forward and bold about asking people to give time, money or both. People don’t regret giving to help those with a need for a better place to live, but working side-by-side with others who are doing that same thing, for the same reason is pure, unmitigated joy.
Millard Fuller will be remembered. He sowed seeds of hope and human dignity that have grown, flourished, spread and now can’t be stopped. Along with tens of thousands of others, I too am in his debt.