Volunteers feel the draw of the Carter Work Project

By Phil Kloer

Karl Auker, of Silicon Valley, CaliforniaKarl Auker, of Silicon Valley, California, signs a house sponsorship sign at last year’s Carter Work Project. Last year’s experience led him to return to Haiti this year to help build more houses. Photo by Greg Pachkowski

Karl Auker, a retired marketing executive who lives in Silicon Valley, California, had not even left Haiti when he started planning his return.

Auker was one of hundreds of volunteers who took part in the 2011 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, building simple, safe houses for 100 families who had been left homeless by the 2010 earthquake.

“That was just a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “I told people that I had never worked so hard and sweated so much and felt so good at the end of the day.

“To see that devastation firsthand, and then to feel like I was doing something that was helping to alleviate it, that was an amazing experience. I knew I wanted to come back this year. That decision was made before I left last year.”

Auker and nearly 600 others will travel to Haiti from Nov. 24 to Dec. 1 to build 100 more houses for the 29th Carter Work Project, which for the second consecutive year is building in a former sugarcane field outside the hard-hit city of Léogâne.

The Carter Work Project goes back to 1984, when the former U.S. president and first lady led a group to New York City to help renovate an apartment building. Since then, the Carter Work Project has become an internationally recognized event for Habitat for Humanity International. President Carter is now 88, and Mrs. Carter is 85, and they are among the hardest-working builders every year.

Andrea Bishop, an attorney in Orange County, California, cast her first vote in a presidential election for Jimmy Carter, when she was a senior in high school in 1976. Her son Adam, a high school senior, turned 18 last month and voted in his first election Nov. 5. The Bishops are making the trip to Haiti together, in part because of the Carter connection.

Suzanne Taylor a Canada native who now lives in Buffalo, New YorkSuzanne Taylor a Canada native who now lives in Buffalo, New York, shows off the tattoo she got for this year’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Taylor

“I just like the symmetry,” she said.

Bishop’s story is one of many to be found at this year’s Carter Work Project. Another is that of Lea Wendtlandt, a firefighter in San Antonio, Texas, who was injured on the job in 2011 and spent several months in rehab. When she was back to full strength, she decided to volunteer and build houses in Haiti.

“I’m anxiously awaiting returning and seeing all the families who have moved into their new homes” since the 2011 build, she said.

And there’s Suzanne Taylor, 46, of Buffalo, New York, who got a maple leaf tattoo on her arm specifically for the trip to Haiti, to show her pride in her Canadian roots.

“This is my way of saying I’m reeeeeally Canadian,” said Taylor, who is retired. She got her first tattoo, the logo of the Buffalo Sabers hockey team, before she went on her first Carter Work Project, to India, in 2006.

The volunteers, who have been raising funds for their trips, will fly on Delta Air Lines charters to Port-au-Prince and then take buses to Christianville, a huge campsite run by Haven, an Irish nonprofit. There they will sleep on cots in large tents under mosquito nets, and line up for cold showers that are turned on for three hours every day. 

Corinth Milikin of Dacula, Georgia, a quality director for Aramark Uniform Services, also participated last year. Her reason for going back this year was simple: “Why not?” she said. “There’s a great need. There’s always a need.”