Feature Story – Day 5

Closing ceremonies

There is still one more day of building left during the 2008 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. But volunteers were already able to celebrate their accomplishments Thursday night — and look forward to another opportunity to build with the Carters in Southeast Asia in 2009. Photo by Steffan Hacker.
Feature Story – Day 5 -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Remembering the Gulf, looking forward to Southeast Asia

By Phillip Jordan

During Thursday’s closing ceremonies for the 25th annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project, President Carter challenged volunteers to remember the Gulf Coast long after they leave. Return to volunteer again, he instructed. Tell others to get involved. Don’t let anyone forget.

“Habitat needs 600 volunteers every day on the Gulf Coast,” Carter said. “This is a step on a long road to make this a beautiful place in America once again.”

This year’s build is also only one stop on the Carters’ journey with Habitat. After a quarter-century building, the Carters still aren’t ready to hang up their tool belts.

The next Carter Work Project, “The Mekong Build 2009,” will build homes in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China along the Mekong River. Thursday evening, the Carters passed ceremonial trowels to Habitat for Humanity Thailand Chair Chainarong Monthienvichienchai and Habitat for Humanity Thailand CEO Panida Panyangarm.

This will be the fourth time the Carter Work Project has headed to Asia. Previous builds have been in the Philippines, South Korea and India. Habitat for Humanity has worked in Southeast Asia for more than a decade.

“Habitat helped 24,000 families in Asia last year,” said Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan Reckford. “But the need is breathtaking there.”

And just as this year’s build highlighted the housing crisis that still exists three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, next year’s event will emphasize the great need that remains for the multitude still affected by the tsunami of 2004.

Sandra Strassner, a registered nurse from Houston and a first aid volunteer this week in Biloxi, was more than elated at the news of the Mekong project.

“It’s an answer to prayer,” she said. “For years I’ve been praying Jimmy Carter would take veterans back to Vietnam. For healing. It will be so healing.”

Presidential tears

During the week, the Carters helped build in locations throughout the Gulf: Pascagoula, Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; New Orleans and Covington, La.

“Today, I’ve only cried three times,” Carter said, after describing conversations he had with future homeowners at different work sites.

“I cried a lot more than three times,” Rosalynn Carter said, with a laugh. “I even cried during the videos tonight.”

“Jimmy and I get so much credit — too much credit,” she told the crowd of volunteers. “But you are the ones who do the work … There would be no Habitat for Humanity without you.”

Reckford presented the Carters with a painting that included representations of all the types of houses that they have helped build over the past 25 years. He then thanked the Carters for once again being “the hands and feet of Christ in such a tangible way.”

Rain forced Thursday’s evening closing ceremonies indoors. After a day spent battling the elements, volunteers knocked the caked mud off their work boots and marched into the Magnolia Ballroom at the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino to celebrate their work.

As many speakers noted, however, the rain did not force a halt in building. All told, more than 5,000 volunteers throughout the Gulf Coast this week have helped bring 250 more families closer to their dream of owning a home.

“You have quite an accomplishment,” said Chris Monforton, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. “We have a lot to be excited about.”

Monforton specifically thanked everyone for sacrificing their time and energy to be in the Gulf. He also put into perspective how long the road to recovery has been. When he first moved his family to the Gulf Coast after the hurricanes of 2005, his wife was pregnant with their first child. While thanking his wife for her support, Monforton’s voice broke.

“Four months ago, she blessed me with a second child,” he said.

Monforton then expressed his gratitude to the Carters for the attention this week, but said this week is really all about the families Habitat builds with.

One of those families also took the stage.

Daisy Garner, a future homeowner in Pascagoula, said she was thankful for all the focus on Habitat’s work in the local newspapers and on television during the week. “You hardly ever see good news anymore,” she said.

With her son, Will, on stage by her side, she added, “Words can’t describe the way I feel about how you all have treated us.” Her house will be dedicated Friday.

Phillip Jordan is a writer/editor with Habitat for Humanity International. Additional reporting by Susan Stevenson.