1989: A new vision in Milwaukee

In the fall of 1983, the phone rang. I learned Millard Fuller would be in Wisconsin and would meet with our group. The eight of us heard the requirements for becoming a Habitat affiliate. We also heard that the first Jimmy Carter Work Project would be held the next year in New York City. Six of us attended that groundbreaking event. We returned to Milwaukee with a clear Habitat commitment.

The group began to meet as an unofficial Habitat affiliate. A house needing extensive rehab was purchased, and we identified a partner family. Milwaukee Habitat was real. From 1984 to 1989, we rehabbed 2 to 3 houses per year. A solid, steady organization was being built.

In 1989, another phone call! This time, a proposal for Milwaukee to host the coming summer’s Jimmy Carter Work Project. With two very part-time staff, our modest, yet effective Habitat was not exactly a household name in Milwaukee, but after several days of discernment, the board said, “Let’s do it.”

Five very rainy and hectic days saw hundreds of volunteers and community supporters hold up a commitment to the city and a sign of possibility to potential homeowners. Of greatest importance, the week ended with 14 new homeowners: low income, pride-filled residents. Six now lived in new construction, a first for this affiliate. From that beginning, new construction eventually became the norm and has made homeownership possible for hundreds more families.

The Carter Work Project gave Milwaukee Habitat a dramatic boost, a new vision for a more productive future, and new sources of financial and volunteer support in the 150 churches, businesses, organizations and individuals who shared in the project.

Currently, the affiliate has served 754 families with both new construction and renovations. Even though the structure of Milwaukee Habitat has had to change to meet greater need, the Carter Work Project means Milwaukee Habitat has roots that reflect the depth, vision and commitment of Habitat’s founders.

Five days at 23rd and Walnut in the heart of the city presented an image of renewed hope for the whole city. That image is alive today.

— Rick Deines, former Milwaukee Habitat board chair


Putting out a call for help

The week of our build was a rainy, cold Wisconsin week. I think it was probably somewhere around the third day where the roofing needed to happen. Without getting the roofs on, we couldn’t do any of the drywalling or anything else. The weather was just not cooperating.

The six o’clock news broadcast ran a live shot of President Carter, on site, asking for help from the professional roofing community. He asked folks to come in with their equipment to help us get the roofs on.

The next morning around six, the roofers started to roll in. Most were independent contractors who just took a day off work and brought their equipment and a two- or three-person crew. They got the roofs on those houses in a day.

The Carters’ willingness to really engage with folks on the worksite and with the media made the experience and the build a really positive one. Their graciousness to each participant — young or old, skilled craftsperson or someone who just showed up to help — was delightful to see.

I look back at that whole week as a delightful time, despite the really quite terrible weather. It was a phenomenal experience.

— Chuck Ruehle, Milwaukee Habitat media coordinator during Carter Work Project 1989