How Jimmy Carter put Habitat for Humanity 'on the map'
The former president and his wife first volunteered with the organization in 1984.
In 2019, just hours after being released from a Georgia hospital following a fall that resulted in a pelvic fracture, former President Jimmy Carter, who had just turned 95, headed to Nashville to continue the volunteer work that had become an abiding passion of his life.
“I fell down and hit my forehead on a sharp edge and had to go to the hospital. And they took 14 stitches in my forehead and my eye is black, as you’ve noticed,” Carter told reporters gathered at the event organized by Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit whose goal is to provide “decent and affordable housing” for families in need. “But I had a No. 1 priority, and that was to come to Nashville and build houses.”
For journalist and documentary filmmaker Jonathan Alter, author of the 2020 book “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” the episode epitomized the former president’s legacy.
“So he fell and he was hospitalized and he insisted on going and working on the Habitat site. It was his last such work, and, you know, there's that famous photograph of him with the bruises on his face,” Alter told Yahoo News. “That picture is in some ways very characteristic of Carter, because it showed his extraordinary grit and determination, but also his habit of sometimes overdoing it.”
In the week following his hospital stay, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, the former first lady, chipped in to construct 21 new Habitat for Humanity houses and helped raise funding for an additional 21 new single-family homes and 26 new townhomes, according to a Habitat press release in 2019.
Carter famously came from humble beginnings, growing up on a farm in Plains, Ga., that was without running water and electricity. Following his decision last week to forgo further medical treatment and enter hospice care, Carter, 98, returned to his hometown, where he will “spend his remaining time at home with his family,” the Carter Center said in a statement.
“Well, it's sad. I mean, his age, it's not tragic, because he's led a long and productive life … and my understanding was that he just didn't want to be apart from Mrs. Carter anymore,” said Alter, who spent time with the former president on a Habitat build in Memphis in 2016.
“And he didn't want to die in the hospital alone. There's a kind of an interesting closure to it. He was the first American president born in a hospital, but you don't want to die in a hospital, and he wants to do it on his own terms. You have to respect that.”
The former president and his wife first volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in March 1984, a little over three years after he departed the White House. Later that same year, they traveled to New York City’s Lower East Side to join other volunteers from the group in renovating an abandoned building. And that trip provided the impetus for the first Jimmy Carter Work Project with Habitat (later renamed the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project).
“Carter and a bunch of his neighbors got on an overnight bus and they rode from Plains, Ga., to New York City,” said Alter. “So this is a former president of the United States, and he's on the bus like anybody else. I guess a Secret Service agent was with them. And they take the overnight bus. They arrive in New York City, and there's a really grungy-looking exterior of a church right when you enter the Lincoln Tunnel, and at that church they had a kind of a dormitory, and they had one private room that was going to be for the Carters. The Carters found out that there was a couple that was honeymooning, and so they gave that couple the room and they slept in the dorm. This is a former president and a former first lady.
“The next day they started work on rehabbing this building and the New York Times learned about it and did a front-page story, and Habitat was on the map. That's how it took off. And every year from then until 2019 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter devoted one week to building a house somewhere in the world.”
For the next 35 years, the Carters worked alongside more than 100,000 volunteers across the U.S. and 14 countries to build, renovate and repair more than 4,300 homes, according to Habitat.
“All of us at Habitat for Humanity are lifting up President and Mrs. Carter in prayer as he enters hospice care,” Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, said in a statement. “We pray for his comfort and for their peace, and that the Carter family experiences the joy of their relationships with each other and with God in this time.”
With the Carter Center, the former president’s volunteer work extended beyond Habitat for Humanity, focusing on three different areas, Alter noted.
“Global health, where they've led to the near eradication of two major diseases, guinea worm disease and river blindness,” he said. “Democracy promotion is their second big area, and they have supervised elections in more than 100 countries. Then they're also involved in peacemaking … and that's harder to do. But you know, he's had some success over the years, particularly in the year 1994 in preventing wars in Haiti and North Korea.”
All in all, not a bad legacy for a guy who grew up in Plains, Ga. — even one who went on to become president.