Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter reminisces, reflects on past projects -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter reminisces, reflects on past projects

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter at work during the JCWP 2007.

More than two decades after the first Jimmy Carter Work Project, the namesake president’s memory of each site is as sharp as a utility knife. Without the slightest hesitation, Carter rattles off a list of his favorites -- sort of the “best of” the JCWP.

“I think the Indian reservation in South Dakota was one of the most memorable,” Carter said, “because of the problems we had and the way it turned out. We had a windstorm come along and blow away all our equipment, so we only had half enough siding. We had to get on the telephone and use my maximum political influence to get the 18-wheelers to drive in the middle of the night and transport some more stuff for us. So that was a memorable one.”

Carter is taking a break — reluctantly, it seems — from installing siding on a multi-family unit on Vermont Avenue in South Central Los Angeles. Dressed in his favored attire of jeans, denim work shirt and well-worn beige sneakers, Carter is all business on the construction site. Oblivious to the cameras around him, he rarely looks up as he measures twice and cuts once.

He cites the 1987 JCWP in Charlotte, N.C., as “probably the overall most perfect,” the 1999 project in the Philippines as the “most complicated,” the 1996 project in Vac, Hungary, as the “most beautiful,” and last year’s build in Lonavala, India, near Mumbai, as a sentimental favorite: “We built 100 homes where my mother had been in the Peace Corps when she was 70 years old,” he said. “So that was a homecoming in a way.

The history of the Jimmy Carter Work Project almost becomes a geopolitical world tour of the past two decades. Carter recalls the build on a hillside in Durban, South Africa, where white people had driven black residents away under apartheid. “When we built Habitat homes,” he said, “some of the black people moved back.” In 2001, the JCWP built homes in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. “Not many people think anybody can live in a demilitarized zone,” he said. “But we built 12 homes there.”

Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, keep schedules that would flatten most people half their age. But the JCWP maintains a special place on their priority list. “It’s kind of like a fraternity or sorority,” he said, “because we have folks come and join us who have been coming here for 20 years. The only time we get to see them is when we come back to Habitat every year. That makes it nice.


“And the high quality and dedication and the hard work and the ambition of homeowner families is always inspirational to us,” he added. “They work harder than anybody on the site. It’s the first time most of them have ever owned any property themselves, and … it’s not a charity deal, because they’ve done their share of work on the house. You form friendships for a lifetime.”

After the brief break for an interview on the Vermont Avenue site, the Carters — and all the assorted Secret Service agents, police escorts, publicists, local politicians and others who accompany former presidents and first ladies wherever they go — made their way to a nearby home owned by 55-year-old kindergarten teacher Joyce Minners. Her home, where she’s lived for 33 years, is one of dozens of sites chosen for A Brush With Kindness, an auxiliary program of the JCWP for the first time this year.

After inspecting the repairs and landscaping done to her small stucco house, the Carters went on to nearby Watts, where they visited briefly with some of the 21 families who got homes in the 1995 JCWP. “I got to shake his hand for the first time,” said Max Nettles, who lives in a house on Santa Ana Boulevard built with the hands-on help of the Carters. “It was really something.”