An ageless first lady and a couple of superstars show how it’s done
By Phil Kloer
When Beryl Wiltshire first considered volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in Orlando, Florida, she thought she was too old (then 68) and too inexperienced (a retired legal secretary who had never built anything).
“But what inspired me was Rosalynn Carter,” she said. “She’s older than I am, and I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ ”
On Wednesday, Mrs. Carter paid a surprise visit to Wiltshire and all the other volunteers at the Women Build house at the 29th annual Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, in Léogâne, Haiti. When she met her idol, Wiltshire told her the story about feeling too old.
“You’re not too old — you’re young,” Mrs. Carter said as she slipped her arm around Wiltshire and smiled. “I’m so excited about what you’re doing, and showing that women can build. When we first started, the men didn’t think we could. But we proved we could.”
The Women Build house is part of a Habitat program that began in 1991 and has empowered women to learn construction skills and build houses all over the world. It’s the second year for a Women Build house in Haiti; this year, the program has joined with Habitat’s Cars for Homes initiative to build two houses.
“They have a strong sense of what we’re doing here,” said Rick Damato of Duluth, Georgia, the construction leader for the two houses. “They’re passionate to make a contribution, no matter what it takes.”
Meeting her idol has inspired Wiltshire to keep pushing herself. Next month, she turns 71.
“I worked my whole life in an office, and I never thought I could do anything like this,” she said, standing on the build site. “Mrs. Carter showed me age is no barrier.”
‘We’re in it forever’
Although the Carters are Habitat’s most prominent volunteers, country-music singers Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have pretty high name recognition as well. They’ve been building on Carter Work Projects since 2008, and are devoted advocates for Habitat’s mission.
They enjoy being regular volunteers at the Carter Project — riding the bus with everyone else, and taking their turns dishing out dinner in the mess hall. But on Thursday night, they also will perform an acoustic set for their fellow volunteers, singing some of the million-selling songs that have made them superstars.
On Wednesday morning, Brooks and Yearwood stopped building long enough to sit and talk about their work with Habitat. Here are some highlights of the conversation.
- Yearwood on getting hooked: “The first build we went on was New Orleans after Katrina, and it was supposed to be a couple of hours and some interviews. The minute they put the hammer in your hand, you’re hooked. We left there that day thinking we’ve got to do this. We were in.”
- Brooks on future Carter Projects: “We’re in it forever — for as long as they want us. We’ve even offered that in 40 years, if the Carters no longer want to do it and Habitat wants to keep the Carter Work Project going and they need somebody, we’re throwing our hat in the ring.”
- Yearwood on the Carters: “People ask me about the Carters, ‘Do they build?’ They build harder than anybody out there. And that’s the truth.”
- Yearwood on starting somewhere: “When we were here in Haiti last year, I felt overwhelmed. I was kind of a negative Nellie. I thought, ‘How can we possibly make a dent in what needs to be done here?’ But you just have to start somewhere. I see a difference this year. There seems to be more of a community. I see progress.”
- Brooks on the mission of Habitat: “You build a house for people who need one. And the people who need one are in Haiti, and they’re in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and all over. Habitat helps the world one family at a time. Cause that’s what’s underneath these roofs — families.”