Living in houses Jimmy built: Honoring Carter on his 99th birthday

Atlantans recall how the Carters helped them
Portrait of Sally Hollis at her Habitat home built by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and many volunteers in 1988, on Foote Street, Tuesday, September 12, 2023, in Atlanta. Neighbors in the 20-home cluster in the Edgewood section of Atlanta used to live in run-down apartments and rented homes, and grew weary of raising families where there was so much crime and drugs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Portrait of Sally Hollis at her Habitat home built by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and many volunteers in 1988, on Foote Street, Tuesday, September 12, 2023, in Atlanta. Neighbors in the 20-home cluster in the Edgewood section of Atlanta used to live in run-down apartments and rented homes, and grew weary of raising families where there was so much crime and drugs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Sunday, Jimmy Carter will be in Plains, celebrating his 99th birthday surrounded by loved ones.

But, 140 miles north, the former U.S. president’s presence also will be felt in an 85-year-old Atlantan’s small dining room.

It’s there that Sally Hollis displays a framed Habitat for Humanity International poster signed by Carter, his wife Rosalynn and more than two dozen other Habitat volunteers who helped build her home. The retired cook hung it when she moved into the one-story house in the Edgewood community in 1988. She proudly points it out to visitors.

“Anybody comes, they look at it,” she said.

For 35 years, Sally Hollis has proudly displayed on her dining room wall a framed poster signed by former first couple Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and other volunteers who worked on her house in Atlanta. The home was part of an annual Habitat for Humanity International building blitz led by the Carters. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Carter has long been the most recognizable face championing Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit formed in the 1970s. For more than three decades, he and his wife worked alongside volunteers in 14 countries to build, renovate and repair about 4,400 homes.

Hollis’ home is one of 20 constructed on and near Foote Street as part of a Carter Work Project, annual weeklong building blitzes organized by Habitat to highlight the former president’s involvement. The Edgewood venture was the only official Carter Work Project in Atlanta.

The Carters helped change Hollis’ life. She and her family landed in a safer place than the nearby apartment they had been in, she said. And the whole experience of the project let her view herself in a different light.

“I wish I could see him and thank him and hug him for what they did for me,” she said.

With both of the Carters ailing, it’s unlikely she ever will.

The Carter family announced earlier this year that Rosalynn is dealing with dementia, and the former president started home hospice care in February. Since waving off additional medical intervention, Carter spends much of his day in bed, though he often still exhibits mental sharpness, his second son, Chip Carter, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The family made simple plans for celebrating his birthday: a breakfast picnic in front of his ranch-style home in Plains, near a pond.

This weekend, Carter’s impact will be felt farther away.

Habitat has scheduled a relaunch of the annual Carter building projects, timed in part to recognize the former president’s October 1 birthday. It marks an important juncture for Habitat as it pushes forward without the active involvement of the former first couple.

This year’s event, running Sunday through Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, will be hosted by country singers Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, who for years participated in builds alongside the Carters.

“We felt having the Carter build continue was one of the best ways to continue to honor their extraordinary legacy,” said Jonathan Reckford, the chief executive of the Georgia-based international organization.

Chip Carter and his wife Becky plan to take part in the event.

Habitat says it has finally fully rebounded from a sharp slowdown in activity during the worst of the COVID pandemic. It says it helped 7.1 million people around the world build or improve housing in its last fiscal year — and 46 million since the organization’s founding. The local Atlanta Habitat chapter expects to erect 40 houses this year.

“It is actually hard to overstate the impact President Carter and Mrs. Carter have had on Habitat,” said Reckford.

Millions of people have been inspired by their example to get involved with Habitat or in their community, taking part in builds that happen all year long, he said.

Former President Jimmy Carter helps position an exterior wall while working on a Habitat for Humanity build November 2015 in Memphis. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

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Former President Jimmy Carter, right, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter raise a wall as they help build a Habitat for Humanity house in Violet, La., Monday, May 21, 2007. The pair were working on the 1000th Habitat for Humanity house in the Gulf Coast region since hurricane Katrina and Rita. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Credit: Alex Brandon

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Credit: Alex Brandon

Habitat officials often stationed the Carters to do work on the exteriors of homes, putting them in view of news camera crews, to capture more attention for the cause. But Jimmy Carter had a reputation for wanting to push hard and fast on the construction work at hand.

He couldn’t seem to stop himself, regardless of his advancing age. At 95, he showed up to a build with a patched forehead and a battered face, the result of an earlier fall at home. The massive builds were paused when the pandemic struck and the Carters faced more health challenges.

“It was hard for them to step away from it all,” Chip Carter said of his parents. “Slowing down was difficult.”

Over their years of service, he said, “I don’t think they ever thought they were able to spend enough time with their families. But these past years, they have been able to catch up on being with their family.”

Though Carter didn’t lead or found Habitat, the nonprofit started in Sumter County, where he’s from. But his initial exposure to the group wasn’t pleasant.

In the waning days of the Carters’ time in the White House, a Habitat leader complained in the press that the first couple hadn’t agreed to attend a local dedication ceremony. Habitat suggested the Carters weren’t sensitive to housing needs in their own community, Rosalynn Carter wrote in a book she and her husband coauthored, “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.”

But after the Carters returned to Plains, they met more people involved in the nonprofit and became intrigued. They invited Habitat co-founder Millard Fuller to visit their home and suggested that he share a list of ways they might help. He arrived with two pages of options and included a place to mark “yes” or “no” beside each. Eventually they agreed to just about everything, Rosalynn Carter wrote.

Habitat fit a growing public image of the Carters. People were fascinated by a former U.S. president so hands-on in helping others — sweating in the sun to build homes for people in need, teaching Sunday school in a small South Georgia church, launching peace efforts around the world and pushing to eradicate Third World diseases.

“We’re not going to solve the whole problem by ourselves, but at least we can make a start,” Carter told reporters before the start of the 1988 Habitat work project in Atlanta. “I’m involved myself because the Bible says it’s the right thing to do.”

All the new homeowners were required to help with the construction work.

Juliette Rockmore, then a supervisor at a restaurant, had given birth to her third child only a few months earlier. She remembers working alongside those building her house, including the Carters. Jimmy Carter worked on the roof. Then he and his wife focused on the back porch. “Him and Rosalynn were working side by side.”

Rockmore said she chatted with the former leader of the free world about children and about what it would be like for her to own a home.

“He was very humble. He was very Christian, like we had all that in common. He used to talk about Sunday school. ... He treated all of us equal. He showed us all love that whole week.”

Rockmore raised her kids and grandkids in that home. Her grown siblings would often spend the night. Her mom, who lived with her, cooked family dinners many Sundays.

“Lots of memories,” said Rockmore, who is now 62 and working as a restaurant general manager.

Last year, with most of her family in their own homes and her mom no longer living, Rockmore sold the four-bedroom house.

Both she and Hollis remember the years before Habitat made it possible for both of them to have their own places.

Sally Hollis shows her Habitat for Humanity home built in 1988 in Atlanta's Edgewood area by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and other volunteers. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Hollis said she lived in a nearby apartment with thin walls and neighbors “who were raising hell and fighting.” She worried bullets might one day rip through the walls. Young men sold drugs on a nearby corner.

Though she couldn’t afford it, she dreamed of a home of her own and a safe place for her kids and grandkids.

She couldn’t fathom the idea of strangers volunteering their time to build a home for her. Even more, “I never would have thought that a president would be out here,” she said.

She didn’t know anything about construction, but she learned when she had to help build her own house. It made her think differently about her own capabilities.

“It made me feel like I was big. Like I was helping myself,” she said. “I felt like I could get a hammer and a saw and do what I wanted to do. ... Habitat made me see I could handle things more on my own.”

Sally Hollis sits on her porch at her Habitat home built by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and many volunteers in 1988, on Foote Street, Tuesday, September 12, 2023, in Atlanta. Neighbors in the 20-home cluster in the Edgewood section of Atlanta used to live in run-down apartments and rented homes, and grew weary of raising families where there was so much crime and drugs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On Foote Street, neighbors watched out for one another. They helped Hollis through the deaths of two of her daughters. And they shared joy. One friend would holler at her from a back door to come on over for breakfast. “That is the type of neighbors we were.”

Now, she loves to sit on her front porch. To wave to neighbors. To hear them call out, “Hey, Ms. Sally!”

A lot has changed. Many of the original Habitat owners have passed away or moved away. One of the homes has become Airbnb lodging. A couple from Denmark has moved into another. A third has been expanded, with an added second story.

Hollis said she gets called multiple times a day by people offering to buy her house.

Sell a house she helped construct herself? One that she poured so much of her life into? A house built by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter?

She scoffs at the idea. She isn’t planning on leaving while she’s breathing. And the signed poster on her dining room wall stays.

“If I don’t die in the hospital, they will have to take me out of here. Because I love my house.”

In a  scrapbook, Sally Hollis keeps this signed photo of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC


Thinking about how you might honor Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter for his 99th birthday?

Chip Carter, their son, suggested “just getting involved in your community — whether with time, energy or money or influence — to try to do something for people who have less than you do.“

He said his parents have long valued specific organizations, including the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers (https://rosalynncarter.org/), The Carter Center (https://www.cartercenter.org/donate/index.html) and Habitat for Humanity International (https://www.habitat.org/).