A powerhouse at Habitat

by Ann Fletcher

You never know what might happen when a good man finds a good excuse to buy power tools.

Twenty-five years ago, Cornelius resident Mal Murray lived in south Charlotte and attended Sardis Presbyterian Church, where building Habitat for Humanity homes was a mission.

Murray spent his high school and college summers constructing homes, so he signed on, motivated to use his skills to help others.

“But I’ve got to be honest with you,” he said, “it’s always a good excuse to buy new tools.”

Armed with know-how and new tools, Murray set to work constructing homes for low-income families.

Habitat International is a nonprofit Christian organization that brings together people with resources and families with needs to build affordable homes that families then purchase at cost.

After Murray and his wife, Lynn, moved to Cornelius in 1996, he joined the local affiliate, Our Towns Habitat, which serves Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville. Since 1988, Our Towns has assisted 193 families locally and 1,066 families globally.

Murray’s efforts recently garnered him Habitat International’s prestigious 2010 Clive Rainey Lifetime Achievement Award.

The national award is presented to just four individuals nationwide each year. Murray is the first Our Towns volunteer to win the award. He was honored during a ceremony at Mooresville’s Epic Chophouse Jan. 14.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I’m not often speechless, but this time, I was.”

A retired First Union executive, Murray spent his entire career with one company and conveys the same stick-to-it attitude with Habitat. He works with all areas of operations as he moves seamlessly from recruiting leaders to securing land to financing and working hands-on with homeowners.

Board member Amy Hartman said three-quarters of its members had connections to Murray. His efforts have also helped shore up Our Towns financing and land.

“He offers to use contacts to help get to the end result, which is serving families in need of affordable housing,” said Rachel Meyers, director of finance and land and a longtime volunteer who joined the staff in 2004.

Meyers counts on Murray to help make things happen.

“He’s there anytime I need something,” she said. “He’ll call a couple times a week to check up and ask how he can help.”

He volunteers as Our Town’s vice president of finance, but has also served as past board president and two-term board member.

Regardless of his role, his strength lies in his ability to understand and manage complex situations, Meyers said.

“We’re a builder, a mortgage lender, a servicer, and he can take a situation with all these moving parts, put it together, and feel comfortable making an educated decision,” she said.

They continually work against several constraints, Murray said.

“One is land, one is money, one is families,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like families ought be a constraint because there are families in need, but we’re not in the business of giving houses away. We are selling houses to people who have shared with us in building them, then they are paying them back on a 20- or 25-year mortgage. So they have to be credit-worthy.”

Our Towns credit counseling helps families identify and correct credit problems. Many re-apply and eventually own a Habitat home.

Murray’s integrity runs as deep as his commitment to others.

“With Mal, you develop a relationship that’s very open and honest,” Meyers said. “I consider him much more than a volunteer; I consider him a friend.”

His fondest memories stem from the families he’s served, including the children of San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, where he’s helped construct homes on several trips.

Habitat International requires that all affiliates tithe. For every dollar raised locally, Our Towns Habitat sends 10% to Guatemala. In addition, two building teams go there each year for a week. In return, Guatemala financially supported a home in Cornelius that faced funding shortfalls last year.

Volunteers like Murray helped Our Towns Habitat earn a 2008 “affiliate of the year” award, in recognition of their passion and success in helping to end poverty housing here and worldwide.

“These are life-changing situations we’re creating,” Murray said. “We’re putting the families we serve on a different path.”

Want to help?
Our Towns Habitat volunteers construct homes, do ReHabitat projects, administrative and office duties, and work ReStore retail. To plug in or learn more, visit www.ourtownshabitat.org or call 704-896-8957.

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