More than 5,000 volunteers from across the country gathered in Fort Worth and Dallas Oct. 6-11 for the 31st annual Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project to help build 50 new homes for low-income families. Joining the team of volunteers were former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. In the past 30 years the couple has their Carter Work Project an internationally recognized event for Habitat for Humanity International. To date, more than 88,000 volunteers have built, renovated and repaired 3,833 homes in 14 countries.
The former president and first lady drove nails and swung hammers alongside Habitat volunteers to build 20 new homes in the Central Meadowbrook neighborhood of Fort Worth. Volunteers also painted 44 houses as part of the city’s “Cowtown Brush Up.” In Dallas, the Carters joined volunteers to help build 30 new homes and repair 20 houses in the East Oak Cliff neighborhood during the week long project. The 2014 work project was hosted jointly by Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth and the Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity. During the event, the former president hosted a roundtable with Alan Scaia of WBAP Radio, Emily Trube of KRLD-CBS Radio and Betty Dillard of the Fort Worth Business Press.
AS: How are things going this week? How do you feel? JC: I feel really good being here and I’ve also seen the good cooperation between Dallas and Fort Worth. This is not a common thing between two cities that are close together and kind of competitors. But the two Habitat organizations seem to be forming a great team and both mayors have been responsible for raising a good bit of money ahead of time. The buildings are in good shape when we got here and we’ve done a lot of work on them all of our volunteers…It’s a good project so far. We’re really proud of it. BD: First of all, congratulations on your 90th birthday. JC: Oh, fine. I felt like I was doing about 10 percent more work when I was just 85. I’ve slowed down a little bit in the last five years but it feels good to be back on Habitat. BD: Why do you build? What drives you to do this? JC: I think Habitat is probably the best organization I’ve ever known in the world. It lets wealthy people, relatively speaking, who have everything they want reach out on an equal basis with a family that’s never had a decent home and they work side by side for a week. And then at the end of the week the formerly very poor family has one richness and that is a dwelling place of which they can really be proud and in which they can raise their children so the kids want to come home in the afternoon and they’re not ashamed of where they live in front of all their classmates. It’s a really good bonding experience for me as a Christian and as a relatively wealthy person just to share some unpleasant experiences with homeowners and see them have a new opportunity for life. It’s exciting and unpredictable and adventurous and always gratifying. ET: What is your favorite activity in terms of house building? JC: I’m a furniture maker. I make very detailed furniture – four-poster beds, chifforobes, chairs and cabinets, things like that. I like the detail work; I really like that better. Ordinarily we start on the foundation Monday morning and erect the walls. We put the roof frame on in the afternoon and cover it with at least some plastic. I think the first day is when you can look back and see that you’ve done an almost incredible job by putting up the roof frame and the house walls. I really think the best thing for me and Rosalynn to work on together – and we try to work together always – is the final finishing work. AS: When you got involved almost 30 years ago did you set out to make this a legacy? Did you imagine this is what you’d still be doing in 2014? JC: I didn’t have any idea of living this long and working on Habitat houses. This is my 31st year as a matter of fact. When we first went to New York in 1984 it was just a spur-of-the-moment thing. We didn’t have a dream it would be an annual affair at the time. We went back the second year to New York and finished up 19 apartments in a six-story building. We went the third year to Chicago, then to Philadelphia and Atlanta. Then we went back to New York [in 2000] and built the 100,000th Habitat house and went back to my cotton field at home where I used to work as a child and built the 100,000th and one home. Habitat has now finished over 800,000 houses in the world. We’re building at a much greater rate than we did when I first started. We didn’t anticipate this long a life and this long a Habitat commitment. But it’s been a lot of fun. We’ve had volunteers that sill work with us. We’ll be working with a guy in Dallas who’s been a house leader for 28 years. They keep coming back. BD: How are the cities and neighborhoods chosen each year for the work project and do you personally select them? JC: I make the final choice, yes. We have to have a community that has a lot of foundation that can raise the money and do the organizational work. We have about 5,000 volunteers working this week in both cities together. It takes a lot of work to arrange housing for us every night and food at breakfast and lunchtime on the site and first aid care and the constant supply of Gatorade or Powerade to make sure we get enough electrolytes. It’s a big logistical challenge. That’s the first requirement is that the cities have to be able to put on an enormous operation like this – 5,000 foreigners coming in here to work. The second thing is the community has to want us to come in…It’s an all-around challenge for us but a very gratifying challenge. ET: During your presidency you called a lot of attention to the environment and our energy use and went so far as to install solar panels in the White House. Are those things you consider when working on projects like this? JC: Yes, in some of the houses we’ve installed solar panels as part of the building project. We did that in two cities so far…We try to make sure the house is well insulated and has a high degree of efficiency. We use the latest kitchen equipment…So I think Habitat is one of the foremost worldwide organizations that puts energy conservation as a top priority. We’ve had a lot of interesting projects. We go ordinarily overseas one year and then back in this country one year. We did two years in Haiti at the epicenter of the earthquake they had. We put two years there so we put two years in the United States the next time. We started out last year on the West Coast up near San Francisco and then went across to Denver and wound up in New Jersey where the hurricane hit. Next year we go to Nepal, the western part of Nepal and will be building 100 homes…They have a very viable and active project organization in Nepal. I would say more heavily oriented to young people than any place we’ve ever been so far. They’re building a lot of houses in Nepal. In the Philippines we had 14,000 volunteers and we built 293 houses in five days. This year the Philippines finished, in just one year, 48,000 homes. Those are exciting things you can see. AS: Do you get to revisit some of the projects that you’ve done in the past? I know here in Fort Worth it’s houses but it also does something for the entire neighborhood. It may be different in foreign countries. Do you get to revisit and see the long-term effect the homes have? JC: It’s different in other countries. One year we built houses in Tijuana, Mexico – seven American-style houses in San Diego and then 100 houses in Tijuana on a hillside. They didn’t have running water or electricity on that hillside. We left our tools there with the homeowners and left room for them to expand the house we built. They were small houses. When we built homes in New York the first time we were in the worst slum in New York City. We went back five years later – I used to jog there from the hotel where we stayed just to take a look – and the whole community had been gentrified. A Habitat homeowner back in those days might have spent $28,000 for their apartment and could have easily sold it for $150,000. That’s one of the areas Habitat put a restraint on so the homeowner couldn’t sell it for a profit and move on. When Habitat comes in you can image if somebody next door is living in a slum they want to live in something better. And the developers who are going to build the houses to rent or sell, they have to meet the standard that Habitat sets. BD: The partner families, or homeowners, put in sweat equity in their own homes. JC: Yes, they put in 500 hours on their house. They might put in, say, 40 hours of work this week, but they have to have been here and helped put down the foundation and gotten the house site ready, cleared up the brush and that sort of thing. They also have to pay full price for the house. We don’t give them any discount on the house. In the United States, we don’t charge any interest. The Bible says you don’t charge interest to a poor person so we charge zero interest. If you’ve ever bought a house you know if you didn’t have to pay interest your monthly payment would be quite low. We give them 20 years to pay. Quite often, they can start buying their own house at a much lower monthly rate than they’ve been paying for a substandard, inhuman rental property. It’s quite an achievement. Rosalynn and I have nothing to do with who gets the houses. The local Habitat organization picks the families. You’ll notice if you look at the list of them that a lot of these people have just come in here from foreign countries and are American citizens but don’t have any chance of getting a home. But now they’ll have a Habitat house. It’s an all-around good thing. Habitat started before I left the White House, and when I got out of the White House I started working on Habitat houses in the county in Georgia where I live, in Plains. Three years later we first went to New York for what’s turned out to be the annual meeting. Habitat is theoretically a wonderful way to carry out God’s will and to put into practice your religious beliefs, whatever they might be, and to share what you have in both time and money. That’s what we do.