Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendry Counties, Inc. began with the Lee County Mission Board. Supported by area places of worship, this non-profit group ministered to needy families in Lee County. The Mission Board focused its efforts in Harlem Heights, a neglected former migrant worker housing area in the southern part of Lee County, located between the present-day Gulf Harbour Yacht and Country Club and HealthPark Medical Center in Ft. Myers, Florida.
In the late 1970s, the Mission Board was instrumental in securing a federal housing grant that resulted in the construction of more than 40 homes in Harlem Heights. Funding ended in 1979, and no other federal grants were approved. Mission Board members Ed Campbell and his wife, Dorothy, told the Board about the fledgling housing ministry called Habitat for Humanity which Millard Fuller founded in 1976 in Americus, Georgia. The Campbells had become familiar with the organization after visiting a building site in nearby Collier County.
In 1979, the mission board invited Millard Fuller to Lee County to share his housing ministry idea. Millard flew to Fort Myers and told the Mission Board this:
The Mission Board thought “What on earth are you talking about? We want to build homes, not dig in the dirt.” But the mission board did as they were told.
A couple of weeks passed by and a man in a red pickup stopped by and said, “I drive by here every day and I see you doing the same thing day in and day out. What are you doing?” The group pointed to the sign and said, “Habitat for Humanity, we’re building homes for people who cannot afford a safe and decent place to live.”
This gentleman was a contractor and ended up funding the first two homes in Lee County, as well as provided all the labor for the construction.
The Mission Board appointed a Habitat for Humanity Administrative Committee and launched a fundraising campaign. When the Lee County Commission donated land in Harlem Heights, the Administrative Committee invited Millard Fuller to speak at the groundbreaking ceremony. With Ed Campbell as project director, Habitat for Humanity of Lee County housed its first family in its new home by Christmas 1980.
In addition to Ed and Dorothy Campbell, other leaders of the Mission Board included Duera Mae Everett, a highly regarded activist and Harlem Heights resident, along with Reverend Ben Zaglaniczy and Ida Rodriguez.
Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendry Counties was granted a charter in October, 1982, one of the first affiliates of Habitat for Humanity International.