Daily Diary – Day 6

A week of blessings

Ken Ladner nails in front porch rails at 249 Nixon Street. A construction supervisor for Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Ladner served simply as a fellow volunteer during this year’s Carter Work Project. “That last day saying goodbye … that always means the most to me,” Ladner said. Photo by Angel Pachkowski.
Daily Diary – Day 6 -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Call waiting
Biloxi
– Volunteers look forward to Friday’s house dedications and visits from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter as much as homeowner families. At one house, just as the Carters were walking up the stairs to the home, one volunteer’s phone rang. The man scrambled to answer his phone with a succinct message for the caller: “Not now, dear!” — Phillip Jordan

Dinner for a houseful
Biloxi
– Sherica Robinson has plenty of sweat equity in her home at 307 Nixon Street. But she has never come as close to fainting as she did before Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter showed up at her house Friday morning.

“I’m so excited, I told everybody to be ready to catch me if I pass out,” Robinson said.

Before the group photo, the house’s volunteers gave Robinson a wooden carving of a house that everyone had signed as a housewarming — and as an early birthday gift. Robinson turns 27 on Monday, and, as thrilled as she was to meet a former president and first lady, she was even more anxious to show her children the progress made on their new home this week: “My kids [Kazaivian and Ahierrius] haven’t been able to be here this week, so they don’t know what it looks like now!”

After posing for a group photo, President Carter presented Robinson with a Bible to dedicate the house. “I hope it will be a blessing to you and your family,” he told her. “And I hope these volunteers have been a blessing to you, too.”

“Oh yes, they have,” Robinson answered. “I love them all. And everyone’s got to come back when the house is done so I can make you all dinner.” — Phillip Jordan

Great expectations
Biloxi
– Mary Bunch’s son, Rashad, is a 14-year-old with lofty aspirations. After the Carters left their house at 323 Nichols Street, an awestruck Rashad told his mother, “That’s how it’s going to be when I get famous!” — Phillip Jordan

The rookie
Biloxi
– Though Cassie Merwin, 18, is barely old enough even to be on a Habitat job site, it didn’t take her fellow volunteers long to realize that she belonged. On the first day of building, some men on the crew warned her that the wall-lifting might be too heavy for her. She smiled and respectfully thanked them for the warning. Then she proceeded to lift walls, saw boards, align trusses and do just about anything else needed on the house.

“My dad does construction so I’ve been around it my whole life,” she explained. “I didn’t really enjoy it at first, but I loved hanging out with my dad, so that’s what I did growing up.” Back in Fort Myers, Fla., she works as a construction site leader for Habitat’s Lee County affiliate, assigning tasks to volunteers and making sure they know what they’re doing.

Nobody knew that here, though. “Yeah, I guess I surprised some people,” she said with a laugh. “I’m young, of course, for one thing. And then females in construction are still a surprise for some people.”

“She shocked me,” said Edward Brown, one of the house’s future residents, along with Angel Lewis. “She works like she’s been doing this her whole life. But she hasn’t had that long a life yet!”

The feller at 249 Nixon

Biloxi — A lot of folks have had to ask Ken Ladner to repeat himself this week at 249 Nixon Street. A tall, tan 60-year-old with bushy white sideburns and eyebrows, Ladner serves as the right-hand man for house leader Holly Eaton.

He also possesses one of the thickest south Mississippi accents you could find this week.

“Alright, fellers, let’s raise this ‘un,” Ladner told a group of volunteers earlier in the week helping to raise a porch beam. Just about the time they got the beam raised over their heads, stretching across the entire porch, some people on the ground shouted up to them that the beam was upside down.

Ladner took a peek at the beam above his outstretched hands and laughed. “Well, hang on a second, fellers,” he said. “Looks like they’re right. Let’s take her down!”

Don’t let the humility fool you, though — this is an experienced hand. After working as an independent builder for years, he joined Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in February as a construction supervisor. He said it’s being with the volunteers he’s enjoyed the most, and that’s what makes the last day of building such an emotional one.

“That always means the most to me,” he said. “That last day saying goodbye to all the folks you’ve worked with and they’ve got tears in their eyes. That means a lot. I might even get a tear goin’, too.”

What’s different about this Carter project?
Volunteer after volunteer had a similar answer. “People here are so appreciative,” explained Wendy Geeslin, a first aid volunteer from Central Florida. She had been picking up supplies Sunday at Wal-mart in her Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project T-shirt and the clerk and several shoppers had thanked her for coming: “People just come up and thank you. Some have tears in their eyes.”

That happened to volunteers and staff all along the coast this week. Strangers would stop you on the street, and thank you for coming and for the work and the caring build here. Then they would ask you to thank the Carters, too, “if you get a chance.”

I was perched drinking sweet tea in a restaurant. A woman touched my shoulder said she had lost a 100-year-old house to Katrina.

“It means so much that you’ve come now. I’m so appreciative.” I thanked her and we looked at each other as if we both felt some connection we couldn’t quite name. She tapped me on the shoulder, we smiled at each other and she went on.

Habitat for Humanity International staff had been in and out of what became a favorite restaurant in Biloxi, Desporte’s, for several months to eat po boys chased with crawfish etouffe.

When about eight drenched staff members straggled in for lunch Friday, one of the daughters of the family-owned seafood place yelled hello at us and explained that shared connection. When she saw us, she said, “It’s the family.”

Lots of folks with Habitat, staff or volunteer, never knew we had family in Mississippi, but we sure do now. — Susan Stevenson

Meet the writers who are covering this year’s Carter Work Project. See their bios at the bottom of this page.