Carters reflect on Haiti and a life of service

By Soyia Ellison

On the next-to-last day of this year’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, former President Carter got in a golf cart, surveyed all 100 homes under construction, and declared himself mostly pleased with the progress.

“But we’re going to work a little later tonight to make sure we’re ready for Friday,” he said.

Then he sat down with the woman he likes to call “my boss for the last 66½ years,” and they discussed their appreciation for the Haitian people, their fondest memories from Carter Work Projects past, and the roots of their concern for the poor. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

It seems Haiti holds a special place in your heart. Why is that?

Former U.S. President Jimmy CarterFormer U.S. President Jimmy Carter said, “The Haitian people are admirable in every way.” ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

Jimmy Carter: The Haitian people are admirable in every way. They’re poverty-stricken, but they’re proud. They’re hardworking. They’re dedicated. They’re ambitious. They have very good family values. And they’re proud of what little they have, which I think is proven vividly by the way they’ve decorated the sites that we built last year.

Rosalynn Carter: It’s really wonderful the way they’re so innovative. They really use everything.

Thinking back on 29 years of Carter Work Projects, what do you remember most fondly?

J. Carter: I worked on a little house in the Philippines with three other presidents. Well, the other presidents came, and they worked as long as the television cameras were there. The incumbent president of the Philippines came, and two previous presidents came. So this lady had a house on which four presidents worked, and when she moved in the house, we discovered that she had been
sleeping with her three daughters in an abandoned septic tank.

Rosalynn CarterRosalynn Carter, whom the former president calls “my boss for the last 66½ years,” said the couple’s legacy of service is a product of their upbringing in small-town Georgia. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

R. Carter:
In the Philippines they have little johns — little pots — for toilets. And when the homeowner came in with hers, she held that jar like it was the most precious thing, and then she stood in the corner clutching it with tears running down her face. No one can know what it means to those people.

J. Carter: I think one of the most exciting things is the emotional pleasure that Habitat volunteers get out of the project when they finish a week’s work. Uniformly, they are very grateful that they were able to come. It’s not a sacrifice for them; it’s really a benefit.

R. Carter: I think everybody would like to do something to help somebody else, but they don’t know where to start or how to go about it. People give money to things, but this is so rewarding because you can see what you did — you can see how much people appreciate it.

Can you trace the origins of your concern and compassion for the poor?

J. Carter: I started out life in a poor community. I didn’t have any white neighbors; all my neighbors were African-American. They were extremely poor. I got acquainted then with how wonderful those people were even though they lived in poverty, and, at that time, under severe racial discrimination. They were still proud and religious and kind and gentle and cared for each other — and also cared for me.

R. Carter: It’s the way we were raised. We grew up in Plains, Georgia — population about 600. We were poor, but I didn’t know it because we had plenty to eat. I knew my mother made my clothes out of sugar sacks and flour sacks. But my father died when I was 13 years old, and when he died, people came in and brought food — they brought everything we needed … and that’s the way we grew up. It didn’t matter who in town had a problem, everybody helped.

You’ve been to more than 140 countries. Growing up in a tiny town, did you ever dream you would see so much of the world?

R. Carter: I used to read stories about snow, people living in the snowy countries and ice skating and things like that, and I would think that I would really like to go travel. Little did I know I would travel so much!