Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller dies at 74

(RNS)– Fuller helped Habitat grow from its rural Georgia roots into a global housing nonprofit.

WASHINGTON — Millard Fuller, the man who founded Habitat for Humanity and whose name was synonymous with volunteer faith-based efforts to build houses for the poor, died suddenly Tuesday (Feb. 3) after a brief illness.

Fuller, 74, had suffered from a chest cold in recent weeks, said Holly Chapman, vice president of communications and development of the Fuller Center for Housing in Americus, Ga.

“He just took a turn for the worse last night,” she said.

Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity in 1976 but parted ways with the worldwide organization in 2005 after philosophical differences with Habitat’s board and an allegation of inappropriate conduct that Fuller vehemently denied.

After leaving Habitat, Fuller started the Fuller Center for Housing in Americus, Ga., which sought to continue his mission to provide people across the world with decent housing.

Chapman said the center expects to go forward with plans for a summer project to build 10 houses in Fuller’s hometown of Lanett, Ala., to mark what would have been the 50th wedding anniversary of Fuller and his wife, Linda.

“Millard would not want people to mourn his death,” said Linda Fuller, co-founder of both Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center, in a statement. “He would be more interested in having people put on a tool belt and build a house for people in need.”

Former President Jimmy Carter, a longtime volunteer with Habitat for Humanity who continues to lead a “Jimmy Carter Work Project” with the organization each year, issued a statement calling Millard Fuller “one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known” and commending his roles as founder of both Habitat and the Fuller Center.

“…(H)e was an inspiration to me, other members of our family and an untold number of volunteers who worked side-by-side under his leadership,” Carter said.

Likewise, Fuller’s successor at Habitat, Jonathan Reckford, said the organization mourns the loss of its founder.

” Millard Fuller was a force of nature who turned a simple idea into an international organization that has helped more than 300,000 families move from deplorable housing into simple, decent homes they helped build and can afford to buy and live in,” said Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.

Fuller became a millionaire by age 29 and developed Habitat for Humanity after giving up all his possessions and moving with his wife to Koinonia Farm, a Christian community near Americus. The Fullers tested the model of building modest homes with the volunteer labor and “sweat equity” of low-income homeowners in Africa before creating the organization to construct houses worldwide.

The author of 10 books, Fuller was recognized with numerous honors for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“Our choice is between grace and disgrace,” he said in a 1995 speech in Washington. “Do we want graceful communities, where love and concern abound, or disgraceful ones, where love and concern are withheld and dispensed only to a privileged few?”

Chapman, the spokeswoman for the Fuller Center, said the organization will work on a succession plan but plans to “continue the mission of Millard.”

“His vision was that every person in every country of the world has a simple decent place to live,” she said, “and that continues to be our mission.”

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