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Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendry Counties


A stark reminder of the need for change: This dilapidated shack in Harlem Heights, lacking electricity and running water, inspired the Lee County Mission Board to bring Habitat for Humanity to the area, transforming lives and communities. Photo circa 1980.

Habitat for Humanity of Lee County, Inc. began with the Lee County Mission Board. Supported by area places of worship, this non-profit group ministered to families in need in Lee County. The Mission Board focused its efforts on Harlem Heights, a run-down, neglected former migrant worker housing area in the southern part of Lee County (located between the present-day Gulf Harbor and HealthPark Medical Center).

In the late 1970s, the Mission Board was instrumental in securing a federal housing grant that resulted in the construction of some 40 homes in Harlem Heights. Funding ended in 1979, and no other federal grants were approved. Mission Board members Ed and Dorothy Campbell told the Board about the fledgling housing ministry called Habitat for Humanity, which Millard Fuller had 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:

“To start a Habitat affiliate, you need to get a piece of plywood, paint it white and write the words ‘Habitat for Humanity’ on it. Erect this sign in the ground outside the piece of property you plan to build the house on. Start digging a trench on this land as if you were to pour a foundation for the home—but don’t actually pour the concrete—just dig the trench. Once you have the trench dug, fill it all back in and dig it again, fill it back in and dig it again.”

The mission board thought, “What on earth are you talking about? We want to build homes, not dig in the dirt.” But the board did as Millard told them to.

The Rivera Family, proud partners and residents of the first Habitat for Humanity home in Lee County, which broke ground in February 1980.

A couple of weeks went by, and a man in a red pickup truck stopped 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.” The man in the red pickup truck turned out to be a contractor and committed to funding the first two homes in Lee County, as well as providing 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/Habitat for Humanity 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 County was granted a charter in October 1982 and became one of Habitat for Humanity International’s first affiliates.

In 2011, the organization officially changed its name to reflect that it had served families in Hendry County for many years. The name was revised to Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendry Counties, Inc.

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Habitat for Humanity International

The idea that became Habitat for Humanity first grew from the fertile soil of Koinonia Farm, a community farm outside of Americus, Georgia, founded by farmer and biblical scholar Clarence Jordan.

On the farm, Jordan and Habitat’s eventual founders Millard and Linda Fuller developed the concept of “partnership housing.” The concept centered on those in need of adequate shelter working side by side with volunteers to build decent, affordable houses. The houses would be built at no profit. New homeowners’ house payments would be combined with no-interest loans provided by supporters and money earned by fundraising to create “The Fund for Humanity,” which would then be used to build more homes.

Beau and Emma were the owners of the first home built by Koinonia’s Partnership Housing Program. They and their five children moved into a concrete-block home with a modern kitchen, indoor bathroom and heating system, replacing the unpainted, uninsulated shack with no plumbing where they had previously lived.

In 1973, the Fullers decided to take the Fund for Humanity concept to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. After three years of hard work to launch a successful house building program there, the Fullers then returned to the United States and called together a group of supporters to discuss the future of their dream: Habitat for Humanity International, founded in 1976.

The times have changed, the build site locations have grown in number, but the very real change that Beau and Emma’s family experienced is shared by families today who partner with Habitat to build or improve a place they can call home. Thanks in no small part to the personal involvement of U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn and the awareness they have raised, Habitat now works in all 50 states in the U.S. and in more than 70 countries and has helped more than 29 million people achieve strength, stability and independence through safe, decent and affordable shelter.