Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, was a highly successful businessman and attorney, but he and his wife, Linda, decided to divest themselves of their wealth and devote themselves to a life of service. After a short period living at Koinonia Farms in Georgia, where they were exposed to the ideas that formed the basis of Habitat for Humanity, the Fullers left for a lay mission to the Congo. There, they successfully built a small community of homes with 50 families. It was evident that this idea of self-help, respect, and payback of homebuilding costs with no interest or profit was a partnership of people with need and people with resources that could empower families to improve not only their living conditions, but their entire lives. The Fullers returned to the U.S. to officially form Habitat for Humanity International.
Dennis and Georgia Briscoe are the founders of Habitat for Humanity in San Diego. Dennis’ college roommate was from the Congo and was active in the Fullers’ communities there. Through this connection, Millard wrote letters to Dennis and Georgia Briscoe about his philosophy of community building and giving back. That stirred the Briscoe’s interest and they became financial donors of some of Habitat’s projects in Africa.
The Briscoes became friends with Millard Fuller, hosting him at their home when he came to San Diego, and introducing him to members of the community and their church. Millard began asking Dennis, “When are you going to start a Habitat in San Diego?” Dennis became committed to the Habitat concept and was ready to start an affiliate when the adult Sunday school class at First United Methodist Church executed an alternative Christmas giving program that raised $40,000 over four years. With funding in place, the Briscoes and their friends began the Habitat journey in San Diego.
In the early years, San Diego Habitat was a cross-border affiliate. Half of its leadership was in Mexico and half in the United States. Funds were raised primarily through churches and donations were small, but many. In the summer of 1987, in a bi national meeting at the Autonomous University of Baja California, approximately 50 people representing many constituencies expressed their strong support for the idea of starting a Habitat affiliate in the San Diego-Tijuana region. This bi-national affiliate was to become the only one of its kind in the history of Habitat and was designed from the beginning to create a cross-border partnership for working together on the lack of affordable housing throughout the metropolis of Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California.
In January 1988, the San Diego-Tijuana Habitat for Humanity was officially approved and incorporated in California as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation.
In 1990, President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn came to San Diego to help build homes in Mexico and in the United States for the first ever bi-national Jimmy Carter Work Project, a one-week long blitz style build. With the aid of Habitat for Humanity International, the Carters and about 3,000 volunteers from around San Diego, the rest of the U.S., and a number of other countries, 107 homes were completed in the region during the build event- 100 in Tijuana and and seven in Encanto (Southeast San Diego).
The San Diego faith-based and philanthropic community donated approximately $1.5 million for this event. Much of the money was raised in major fundraisers hosted by Larry Lawrence at the Hotel Del Coronado (other hosts of this event included Gordon Luce, Kim Fletcher, Clair Burgener, and Lionel Van Deerlin), at the personal home of Tawfiq Khoury, and on Bill Allen’s beautiful yacht. Many philanthropists in the San Diego community made significant contributions to ensure the success of what was, at the time, the largest ever of the Jimmy Carter Habitat Blitz Builds.
Again, First United Methodist Church played a major role with a commitment of $150,000 to the work of Habitat in San Diego and Tijuana. San Diegans who made major contributions to the construction efforts included: Barry McComic (developer of Rancho Bernardo), Tom Penick (of T.B. Penick & Sons, concrete contractors), Jeff Snider (retired CEO of an insurance holding company in Los Angeles), Ed Walton (a local attorney) and Ken Erickson (a local construction scheduler).
By the early 1990’s Habitat for Humanity International was going strong and took over efforts in Mexico, leaving the San Diego affiliate to focus on building in San Diego County – but not before 358 homes were built across the border.
A lot has changed since the beginnings of San Diego Habitat for Humanity, but one thing remains true – the philosophy of a community coming together to offer a hand up, not a hand out to our neighbors in need.