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Carters look back before their 30th Habitat work project

President Carter greets guests at a reception before the opening ceremonies of the 2013 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra MillsteinPresident Carter greets guests at a reception before the opening ceremonies of the 2013 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

By Phil Kloer

At a Habitat for Humanity benefit in Oakland, California, on Sunday night, President Jimmy Carter took the stage to reminisce about the many places the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project has built homes over the years, from South Africa to South Dakota. The fond retrospective was appropriate, since this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Carters’ work with Habitat.

Starting Monday, the 2013 Carter Work Project will sweep from coast to coast for a week, building and repairing 85 homes in Oakland and San Jose, California; Denver, Colorado; New York City; and Union Beach, New Jersey. Monday is also designated by the United Nations as World Habitat Day.

“Many of us in this theater have just about everything we need,” the former president told the audience in Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, returning to a theme he has often emphasized about his long involvement with Habitat.

“And we have the ambition to share some of our good fortune with others,” he continued. “That’s one of the most difficult things in life: to cross that chasm between well-off people and families that don’t have a decent home. That’s one of the things Habitat has given to us: an ability to share, side by side, building a home with families that have never had a decent place to live.”

Habitat’s highest-profile annual event began in 1984, when the Carters spent a week renovating a run-down townhouse unit on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The media swarmed to the unprecedented sight of a former president installing a floor in overalls, work boots and a red bandana, covered in soot, sweat and sawdust, with the former first lady working right alongside him. The power of the humble images struck a chord in the country and boosted Habitat’s public profile tremendously.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the project, the Carters will return to that original Manhattan townhouse on Thursday to visit the families who live there now.

In New York City, about 400 volunteers gathered at Central Park Zoo on Sunday to enjoy an unconventional opening ceremony featuring bluegrass music, tribal drumming and a captivating performance by sea lions. Under overcast skies, volunteers mingled with staff and board members from Habitat for Humanity New York City in a cocktail-party setting, munching on pizza as they prepared for a full week of building and repairing homes in Queens and Staten Island.

In Denver, where 2,000 volunteers will build 11 townhomes and repair 15 existing homes in the historic Globeville neighborhood, the week kicked off with an afternoon of family fun in Argo Park. Clowns painted faces and made balloon animals; children hula hooped and played ladder ball. Heather Lafferty, CEO and executive director of Habitat for Humanity Denver, told the crowd, “In five days, 26 homes will be standing tall and proud, and 26 families will be ready to enjoy the fruits of their hard labor.”

As Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan Reckford told the Oakland crowd Sunday: “It’s going to be a great week.”

Soyia Ellison and Teresa K. Weaver contributed to this report.