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Archive story: More than 30 years after founding habitat, Fuller is hard working as ever

The two-year mark this summer for the Fuller Center of Housing in Americus finds its co-founder busy as ever. When Millard Fuller started listing in an interview the cities he's soon to visit, two words come to mind: Frequent Flier. Safe to say, the 72-year-old is not hanging up his hammer anytime soon.

"The blur is about to start," said Fuller, who went out on a sour note from Habitat for Humanity International a little more than two years ago. That's when his board fired him from the housing ministry, also birthed in Americus, following allegations of sexual harassment by a female staff member. Though an investigation cleared his name, he did not return to his job but started the new venture with Linda, his wife, and a few former staff. In the end, differences between the Fullers and the board ended their relationship.

He and Linda founded Habitat for Humanity in 1976. Like Habitat, the Fuller Center for Housing builds nonprofit homes for those who otherwise can't afford them, in countries all over the globe. Like Habitat, future homeowners approved by the Fuller Center contribute what's called sweat equity. As part of their earning a no-interest home, they labor alongside staff and volunteers to build their house.

Several things distinguish the two organizations: One, the Fuller Center has added home renovations to its repertoire --- for instance, homes affected by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf. Or even just someone's leaky roof. And, they are given what's called a Greater Blessing Box, in which they can mail the Fuller Center monthly payments for the materials used for the repairs. "We tell them, 'This is a gift for you,' " Fuller said. But the box is a chance for them to pay it back, with no legal obligation. The payments are used to help other people in need, Fuller said.

Roots of charity

Fuller's passion for raising a hammer for the poor began about 40 years ago when he and Linda were having marital problems. The near-mythical story goes like this: After Millard had become a millionaire by his 20s through various business ventures and working as a lawyer, his marriage was suffering. Linda left him and went to New York. He tracked her down there and, in the back of a city taxi, they decided they would give all their possessions away. In their mid-30s at the time, they believed that to be a biblical mandate.

A fateful trip to south Georgia with their two young children would help chart a new course. Millard had friends, Al and Carol Henry, who were living at Koinonia Farms outside Americus. It's an integrated community that shares a common spirituality and solidarity with the poor. Millard had no intentions of sticking around, but while on a brief visit there he met Clarence Jordan. "He was the closest person to Jesus I ever met," Fuller said. "He became our spiritual mentor."

After a few years working as a teacher and missionary in Africa, the Fullers returned to Americus to found Habitat for Humanity which he led for 30 years. Largely because of that work, Fuller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Today, about 150 of the Habitat leadership works in Atlanta, with the rest in Americus.

Never one to rest, Fuller got busy with his new venture at the age of 70. Founded just a few months before Hurricane Katrina hit in the summer of 2005, the Fuller Center for Housing sent staff and volunteers to the hard-hit Gulf region --- notably Shreveport, La. --- to help with cleanup. Two years ago, the center also began work in Nepal but had to halt it after one of the workers was shot. Additionally, single women with children are being assisted with housing in El Salvador. The Fuller Center has strong inroads into the upper Chattahoochee valley near Columbus, including Valley and Lanett, Ala., and West Point, Ga. That area is Millard Fuller's birthplace.

'All faiths'

True to its Christian focus, the Fuller Center gives a Bible as a gift to their new homeowners. Yet, the center doesn't discriminate for whom it builds.

"We excel at bringing people of all faiths together," said staff member David Snell. "We all believe the same thing --- that decent shelter should be a matter of conscience and action no matter who you worship or what book you may or may not read."

In the two years since it started, the Fuller Center has:

- Grown from 200 supporters to a mailing list of 13,000

- Formed partnerships with organizations in the Netherlands, Republic of Congo, Nepal, Nigeria, Cooke Islands, El Salvador, Sri Lanka and India

- Completed 20 new homes near Abuja, Nigeria

- Begun a program to construct 500 homes in the Chattahoochee Valley, among other initiatives.

In many of the communities and countries where it labors, the Fuller Center partners with Habitat. "I don't see us in competition with Habitat," said Fuller. "We will be in competition when there's a shortage of need. We seek to work cooperatively when we can."

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