Millard Fuller, the revolutionary visionary whose passion was to create a world where every man, woman and child had access to simple, decent housing, died in Albany, Ga., on Monday at the age of 74.
There are few people who had such a huge impact on my life as Millard did, and I am humbled by the way he influenced the world and individuals like me. More than 300,000 homes have been built through Habitat for Humanity, the organization he founded in 1976. His goal was simple, yet broad: We must wipe substandard housing from the face of the planet.
I joined Habitat for Humanity in 1992 in Suffolk County on Long Island as a volunteer through my church. I quickly became a member of the affiliate’s Family Selection Committee (they begged me not to come to the job sites!) to help choose families that were living in substandard housing for Habitat's program. It was the work on that committee that opened my eyes to the depths of squalid living conditions on of all places, Long Island. There I visited families that lived in basements that had no fire escapes, above commercial automobile repair shops, in cars parked at local grocery stores, and stuffed into homes where they rotated bedrooms with two other families. The experiences kept me up at night, thankful for the roof over my head, and determine to do what I could to make sure others were as lucky as me.
I met Millard at a Habitat conference in Los Angeles in 1994. I spoke to him briefly, not more than five minutes, as he walked from one engagement to the next. I told him how thankful I was to be a part of Habitat, and in passing I mentioned another program I was involved with, a relief effort to war-torn El Salvador that my small church was developing on its own. We shook hands, and he went on his way.
A month later I received a personal hand-written thank you note from Millard for spending the five minutes with him and letting him know about the El Salvadoran project. I was amazed that he took some time to acknowledge our chat, but I was sure it was a staff person who put it together because our meeting was so short.
Years later I had the chance to meet Millard once again at a conference in Toronto. By this time I was the Board President at Suffolk County, but still an unknown within the national organization. I introduced myself, and without missing a heartbeat, Millard looked up and said, "Hello Jeff, nice to see you again. How's that El Salvador project going?"
My jaw hit the ground. You see, Millard had this God-given ability to remember details and faces liked no other. Here is a man who had such incredible responsibilities and opportunities, yet he could remember years after the fact a short five-minute chat with someone he just met. The caring this man had in his heart was incredible.
Millard left Habitat under difficult circumstances. It nearly split the organization, and it certainly caused hard feelings throughout the non-profit group. But his impact on this world, and my life, can never be questioned. More than a million people around the globe are now living in simple, decent housing. Those homes, by the way, are not given away, they are earned. Each family works hundreds of hours of sweat equity on the construction sites, and then they pay back a zero-percent loan. I know those families are thankful for his vision and deeds every time they walk through their front door.
People go to Habitat job sites around the world thinking they're going to make an impact on someone's life, but what happens in the end is that Habitat makes an impact on their own lives. It happen to me, it can happen to you. To volunteer, or to donate, contact your local Habitat affiliate, which can be found here. I guarantee it will be a blessing in your life.
-- Jeff Pijanowski
For an obit and timeline, see the Atlanta Journal-Constitution