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Opening ceremony energizes volunteers for a Carter Work Project like no other -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Opening ceremony energizes volunteers for a Carter Work Project like no other

By Adam R. Smith


Volunteers with cameras and phones snap photos of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter as they prepare to address the crowd during Saturday night’s opening ceremonies. Photo by Gregg Pachkowski.


Carter Work Project opening ceremonies (slideshow)


Time and again, the more than 400 volunteers gathered Saturday evening for the opening ceremonies of the 28th Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project were reminded that this year’s project would be different.

“I’m pretty sure we’re in for a week like no other in our lives,” said Patrick Corvington, Habitat for Humanity International’s senior vice president of volunteer and institutional engagement.

After thanking the crowd in the International Ballroom at the Sheraton Gateway Airport Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, Corvington asked how many people had questioned their decision to join the Carters in building 100 houses at the Santo site in Léogâne, Haiti.

“You are ready to journey to a place you’ve probably never been, willing to take in sights of crushing poverty and destruction no one really wants to see,” Corvington said. “But I won’t question your wisdom – not for a second.”

This year’s project has a personal connection for Corvington, who is of Haitian descent and who lost cousins to the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. He told the crowd he was eager to return to the land of his parents’ birth.

“No matter what we see in the news; no matter what we read or what we hear – humanity always wins,” he said. “Service always wins.”

Corvington then introduced the Carters, who have exemplified service with Habitat since 1984.

“Save your strength,” President Carter quipped after he and his wife, Rosalynn, took the stage to a standing ovation.

“We know the Haitian people,” said Carter, who this week is making his ninth visit to Haiti. “And we are going back with hearts filled with love.”

At 87, the former president playfully admonished the volunteers that they all “will have to work a lot harder this week” to make up for the recent knee replacement surgery that has slowed him down this year.

Elizabeth Blake, Habitat’s senior vice president of government relations, advocacy and general counsel, also laid out a challenge to the volunteers, asking them to carry the experiences of the week back home and become storytellers.

She outlined some of the many roadblocks to Haiti’s rebuilding, including a delay in removing rubble from the earthquake, a cholera outbreak that diverted some humanitarian assistance, a lack of legal proof of land ownership, and the mistrust and fear of corruption that have prevented relief money from being spent.

But there is hope, she said, in new President Michel Martelly, who took office in May, and in the Carter project volunteers, who can become advocates for Haiti’s recovery upon their return.

Mark Andrews, Habitat’s vice president for Haiti recovery, told the volunteers they should “expect to be shocked” when they arrive in Haiti.

“In the first five minutes of your bus drive, if you’re not shocked, somebody needs to check your pulse,” he said.

Volunteers should expect to be frustrated, confused and overwhelmed by the conditions the Haitian people continue to face, he warned, but they also should expect to be energized.

“The Haitian people are phenomenal,” he said. “I’ve never seen people who are more resilient, more willing to do the right thing, more willing to step up.”

“Energized” is the perfect word to describe the crowd as the Freedom Singers took the stage to perform songs from the civil rights era in the U.S., emphasizing that the volunteers’ work is bringing freedom to Haiti.

As the set concluded with “This Little Light of Mine,” voices rang out among tables throughout the ballroom.

Before the crowd dispersed to get some rest before their early flights to Haiti, Jonathan Reckford, Habitat’s CEO, advised the volunteers to “be ready for surprises.”

Whenever they find conditions to be less than perfect during the long, hot work days in Haiti, he said, they should feel free to voice their frustrations, but also to end each sentence with “…and that’s just the way I like it.”

For the volunteers, the Habitat staff, and the partner families in Haiti, this Carter project will be a challenge like none before. And that’s just the way they like it.

Adam R. Smith is copy manager for Habitat for Humanity International, based in Americus, Georgia.