Memphis - Jimmy Carter’s got a busy week ahead. Luckily, he’s got plenty of help.
“Welcome! You’re going to put us over 92,000 volunteers and 5,000 houses,” the former president told a packed ballroom at the historic Peabody Hotel late Sunday afternoon. It was the opening ceremony for Habitat for Humanity’s 33rd Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project taking place here Monday through Friday.
It’s the second time in 10 months the Carters have put themselves to work here. Last November, they spent a day helping to build a single Habitat house in Memphis’s Uptown neighborhood. This week’s goals are a bit more ambitious: 19 new homes to be built in a section of town just north of Uptown, as well as 10 neighborhood beautification projects and a half dozen wheelchair ramps to be erected as part of an “aging in place” initiative that will allow seniors to stay in their homes.
Led by the hammerer-in-chief, some 2,500 volunteers from all over the country are pitching in — a far cry from the 40-some people who joined the former first couple on a Greyhound bus to New York for their first Habitat building effort in 1984, Carter, 91, recalled. Since then, he and his 89-year-old wife have taken their annual work project everywhere from South Dakota, where 30 houses were built on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in 1994, to Durban in South Africa, where 3,000 volunteers completed an eye popping 100 houses in a week. This latest go-round should put them over the 5,000 house mark, Carter said.
Sunday’s kickoff event came a year and a day after Carter’s extraordinary press conference where he detailed his brain cancer diagnosis to the world. His subsequent treatment with a combination of radiation therapy and an innovative immunotherapy drug proved so successful doctors took him off it back in March.
Wearing faded blue jeans and a Habitat ballcap, Carter made no mention of his health during his combination thank you speech and pep talk to the assembled volunteers. Two more will be arriving on Monday morning, he informed them: Married country music stars and longtime Carter Work Project volunteers Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.
Only “the best Habitat volunteers ever,” Carter said.
“If you don’t want to go up top (of a house),” he chuckled, “You’ll look up and Trisha will be up there already.”