A Tribute to Daniel Nielsen

Daniel Nielsen lived an extraordinarily rich life, and his legacy will continue to impact countless individuals for many years to come. He passed away in November of 2021, surrounded by his loved ones. He was kind, hardworking, smart, and committed to building others up. His memory lives on through his friends and family, and in honor of his passion for Habitat for Humanity, in 2022, Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity’s Community Build will be dedicated to him.

Daniel grew up in Rockford. He was the youngest in his family, and his parents, John and Lisa, said that even at a young age, he loved connecting with others. As a child he enjoyed nature, building his toy train tracks for hours, learning about the weather and watching the weather channel. John and Lisa said that as he grew up, he was a wonderful student, a hard worker, and a great athlete—he swam and played tennis. His grandparents and siblings were also strong influences in his life. “We all raised him,” John and Lisa said.

“Daniel brought positive energy to everything he did. He loved life and loved meeting new people. He had an adventurous spirit that drove him to many new places, in the U.S. and abroad. He was unafraid to try new things,” John reflected. “He brought happiness and peace to all those who knew him. He always tried to see things from the other person’s perspective. This gave him great insight, understanding and acceptance. He was very thoughtful and enjoyed helping others. He was goofy and had a fun sense of humor. He could always put a smile on your face and put you at ease.”

“Daniel was a silly guy. He was always happy, with a sparkle in his eyes, and a smile on his face,” Lisa said. “He was a great listener…He was also just very wise, almost wise beyond his years. You’ve heard the saying ‘he was an old soul’—that’s what I think of when I think of Daniel.”

Daniel’s life was marked by his love for others and his ability to bring people together.

In Lisa’s words, “Daniel built and was surrounded by such a wonderful community of people. He looked forward to meeting, learning about, and spending time with others who came from all walks of life. He was an engaging, kind, genuine, person that liked to help others… He had this positivity about him, and he was a bright light. People were drawn to him.”

“He was a very good leader,” John added. “Very humble. He definitely never thought that he was better than the people that he was around. And I think he just tried to make people around him feel good…I think Daniel had an exemplary character. And I think that was based on the love that so many people had for him. So many people had a connection to Daniel, and I think that’s kind of what made Daniel who he is. And he reflected it back.”

When Daniel went to college at the University of Alabama, he became involved with the Center for Service and Leadership as a freshman, which is where he met Abigail, his girlfriend. This organization is dedicated to volunteerism on campus and engaging with the Tuscaloosa community. Under the umbrella of the Center for Service and Leadership, there are a variety of groups that students are segmented into, including a collegiate chapter of Habitat for Humanity. During their freshman year, Daniel and Abigail were selected to be team leaders for the following year (their sophomore year).

“From the beginning, that just set the course for the rest of our college careers,” Abigail said. “It was very clear how special this organization and this team was.”

For his junior and senior years, Daniel was elected president of the Habitat chapter.

“I think those two years just really changed his life in the best possible way,” Abigail said. “He just dedicated himself to making sure students were being educated on the purpose of and how meaningful this organization was.”

She described how Daniel spent his Fridays and Saturdays building on Habitat construction sites, driving other student volunteers back and forth from the builds in the Habitat van, and spending 20 hours a week in the Habitat for Humanity office.

“That first year was just developing the leadership skills to make his presence known, to make our presence known as a chapter. And he did such a great job,” Abigail said. “Senior year, it was almost magnified even more. He had learned how to be a leader, and that entire year, he genuinely dedicated every single day to Habitat.”

By this time, Daniel was connected to countless people on his campus, as well as others connected to Habitat Tuscaloosa and the Tuscaloosa community.

“Not only was he working 20 hours a week in the office and going to all of the build sites, but he was also working with a group of marketing students to make this entire fundraising campaign for [a Habitat homebuyer],” Abigail said. “He dedicated that entire year to fundraising money to build her home.”

The homebuyer’s house had been severely damaged by the 2011 tornadoes that came through Tuscaloosa. The water pipes in her home were leaking so significantly that the home was beyond repair. The homebuyer and her son were both living in the space, and it was no longer a sustainable or adequate housing solution.

Daniel led the charge to raise the money for a new home for this homebuyer and her son. One of the biggest events that he and the Habitat campus chapter helped to coordinate and plan was a community crawfish boil. They involved local coffee shops and the local brewery, and the Tuscaloosa community gathered for the event.

“I think that just shows the level of commitment, and his character, to bring that many people together to raise money for her home,” Abigail said. “And it was an amazing event. So many people showed up.”

By the end of the year, Daniel’s mission was completed—with the help of the community, there were enough funds raised to cover the cost of the new home.

“Someone has a home because of him,” Abigail said.

When it came time to unveil the homebuyer’s new home, Daniel and the other students got to be there, which Abigail said was a truly wonderful moment.

“When [the Habitat homeowner] was notified of [Daniel’s] passing, [she] wrote this really moving letter talking about how throughout her life, she had faced adversities of truly being seen and heard, and then here comes this 21-year-old, making it his mission to not only make her feel seen and heard, but to make her feel loved and supported by her community,” Abigail said. “And I just think that’s very moving.”

Abigail said that when Daniel began his graduate studies, he paused his involvement with Habitat because it was time for new students to step in.

“He said, ‘being away from [Habitat] for only six months has showed me the true value of this organization and all of the good it brings to people, and I can’t wait to be a part of it in my next chapter,’” she said.

Daniel’s passion for fighting housing insecurity and making it possible for more individuals and families to have safe, affordable homes is what led John and Lisa to continue to support their local Habitat in Rockford.

“It just made so much sense,” John said. “It’s a wonderful program providing a lot of things for people. It’s something that’s easy to get behind and support.”

Daniel’s life and legacy will never be forgotten, and on behalf of all of us at Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity, we are honored to dedicate the 2022 Community Build to him. The name of the house built by community volunteer groups this year will be The Daniel Nielsen Memorial Build.

Because of Daniel, more individuals and families will have homes to call their own.

“I think some of his best characteristics were that he was so community-driven, and he was the most compassionate person. And I think those two things make the biggest impact,” Abigail reflected. “He would always say, ‘everyone deserves a home.’ And it’s true.”

Volunteers at a build day in memory of Daniel

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