Day One: Turning words into action

A presidential lesson inspires volunteers on Day One
By Soyia Ellison

Jemma Emmons (left) of Boston, Massachusetts, and Jan Marsiglia, of Sonoma County, CaliforniaJenna Emmons (left) of Boston, Massachusetts, and Jan Marsiglia, of Sonoma County, California, delight in seeing the transformation of last year’s construction site into a real community. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Allen Sullivan

Jan Marsiglia gave out little shrieks of delight as she walked along a row of neatly landscaped homes that she helped build during last year’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Léogâne, Haiti.

“I was just blown away when we were driving by,” she said. “I couldn’t believe the size of the trees, or the greenery, or the smiling faces. It’s just the most exciting thing to get to see the families whose houses you helped build.”

Marsiglia and her friend Jenna Emmons oohed and aahed over the flowers growing in Emilie Valesse’s yard.

“Tell her that her yard is as beautiful as she is,” Jan told a translator.  Valesse blushed with pleasure.

Marsiglia, of Sonoma County, California, is one of nearly 600 volunteers working this week to build 100 houses with Haitian families who lost their homes in the 2010 earthquake. This is the 29th Carter Work Project, and the second in a row in this community called Santo.

President Jimmy Carter teaches a special Sunday school classPresident Jimmy Carter teaches a special Sunday school class to nearly 600 volunteers at the start of the 2012 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein 

Volunteers arrived Saturday and set up camp in Christianville, a campsite run by Haven, an Irish nonprofit.

A Sunday school treat

On Sunday morning, the volunteers were treated to a Sunday school class led by Habitat’s most famous volunteer, Jimmy Carter. The former president, who regularly teaches Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, spoke for 37 minutes on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Carter’s far-ranging class touched on everything from a lesson he learned from his favorite schoolteacher to a showdown with dictator Idi Amin to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan.

He asked the crowd to remember three things:

  • Accommodate changing times but cling to unchanging principles (a lesson from his boyhood teacher, Miss Julia).
  • Have two loves in life: God and the person standing in front of you at that moment (a lesson from pastor Eloy Cruz).
  • Never forget that while good works are important, people are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ (a lesson from the book of Ephesians).
Rosalynn Carter and her youngest son, JeffRosalynn Carter and her youngest son, Jeff, listen as the former U.S. president shares lessons from the Bible and from his life. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

When Carter finished his lesson, he got a standing ovation from the rapt volunteers.

“That was amazing,” said Trudy Martin, a volunteer from northern Canada. “To talk for that long without notes … and he had the place captivated.”

After Sunday school, the group took buses to the Santo site and began building in the brutal Haitian sun. First to work was the octogenarian Carter, who by 10:15 a.m. was helping raise a wall.

“Everybody, that’s south,” he said, pointing. “Let’s move it one inch south.”

That afternoon, as the sounds of hammers echoed across the site, Michelle de Clair of Toronto, Canada, paused to rest for a moment in the shade. This is her first-ever Habitat build — she won the opportunity to participate through a drawing at work.

“Driving into the worksite I was completely overwhelmed — by the enormity and by the passion,” she said.

She appreciates that they are building within sight of both the 2011 houses and the tents where some people have been living for nearly three years now.

“It’s like a full-story picture — you see the beginning, the middle and the end.”

By the end of the first day, the teams had finished exactly what the construction leaders had hoped they would complete by the end of the day — and in some cases a little more.

Dr. Jack Geeslin, an emergency physician from Florida who has led the medical team for many Carter projects, said his doctors and nurses treated at least 50 people for heat exhaustion or dehydration on Sunday, but no one suffered any serious injury.

Overall, said John Castillo, construction director for the project, “We had a wonderful day.”