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Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter’s 35-year Habitat history, told (mostly) through photos

Jimmy Carter’s been making news from Indiana this week, telling a series of national TV interviewers that President Donald Trump made a mistake by not lowering the flag in honor of the late Sen. John McCain.

But that’s hardly the only news out of Mishawaka, a city of some 48,000 people near South Bend. That’s where Carter, 93, and his 91-year-old wife, Rosalynn, are once again leading a five-day Habitat for Humanity building blitz. 

Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter build with volunteers at the 2018 Habitat for Humanity Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in St. Joseph County, Indiana, Tuesday August, 28th, 2018. (Habitat for Humanity International)

It’s the 35th year for the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project (CWP), which got its more low key start in September 1984, when the former first couple led a small work group of volunteers to New York City’s East Village to help provide “safe, affordable housing” for 19 families in an apartment building, Habitat for Humanity International says.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter (rear, center) in New York City in 1984 on a Habitat for Humanity project. (Courtesy of Habitat for Humanity)

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The following July, the CWP returned to New York, followed by building blitzes in Chicago in 1986 and Charlotte in 1987. In June 1990, it went international for the first time, heading to Tijuana, Mexico (as well as San Diego).

In this photo provided by Habitat for Humanity International, the Carters are seen swapping their White House digs of a decade earlier for a tent in Mexico. 

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1990. (Courtesy of Habitat for Humanity International)

Over the first 34 work projects, Habitat says, the Carters have worked alongside more than 100,000 volunteers to build, renovate and repair 4,290 homes in 14 countries. Some of the countries on the list are India, the Phillipines, Haiti and -- in 2009 -- Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Former President Jimmy Carter gives keys to Habitat homeowner Sunshine Salas at the dedication of her family's new house in Maragondon, Philliipines in 1999. (Habitat for Humanity/Gregg Pachkowski)

Here in the U.S., the CWP has taken place everywhere from Los Angeles and Houston to Eastern Kentucky and Eagle Butte, South Dakota. And even in the Carters’ hometown of Plains. (See a complete list at www.habitat.org)

Jimmy Carter shaking hands with a homeowner in Plains, one of several locations of the Carter Work Project in 2000. (George Hipple/wv)

Still, No. 35 is a big deal in a long line of big deals. Big enough, in fact, that Indiana native (and proud Ball State University grad) David Letterman surprised the crowd at Sunday’s  CWP opening ceremony at Notre Dame by  showing up to introduce the Carters.

Retired late night talk show host and Indiana native David Letterman introducing Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter to a crowd of Habitat for Humanity volunteers on the Notre Dame campus on Sunday- (Habitat for Humanity International/Annalise Kaylor)

Letterman said he got involved with Habitat after watching scenes of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on TV and wanting to help. He called Habitat and since then has sponsored or helped build 24 houses himself.

“I wouldn’t know to call Habitat if it was not for Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter,” said Letterman, who showed up to work at the Mishawaka site on Monday.

Jimmy Carter and David Letterman chat on Day 1 of the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Mishawaka, Indiana, on Monday.  Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood are in Mishawaka, too, for the building project that runs through Friday. 

Garth Brooks and Trish Yearwood fist bump while working, Tuesday, at the 2018 Habitat for Humanity Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in St. Joseph County, Indiana. (Habitat for Humanity International)

Like Letterman, the married country superstars started volunteering with Habitat post-Katrina in 2007. Since then, Habitat says, they’ve built alongside the Carters in the U.S. and abroad 10 times.

And make no mistake about it: Brooks and Yearwood (whom Jimmy Carter surprised onstage in Atlanta last October during the inaugural concert at Mercedes-Benz Stadium) really work on these CWP builds. 

Though maybe not as hard as you-know-who, as Brooks once jokingly told the AJC.

“You don’t want to work on a house that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are working on, because they will work you to the bone!”

(At least we think he was joking). 

That interview took place in Memphis in November 2015, where the two famous couples joined other volunteers for a one-day Habitat build. The 31st CWP, which had been scheduled for that week in the Chitwan District of Nepal, had been cancelled due to civil unrest in that earthquake-ravaged, mountainous country.   In its place, everyone headed to Memphis to announce that that city would be the site of the next CWP, in August 2016.

Country musician Trisha Yearwood, from left, Former President Jimmy Carter and Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter help position an exterior wall while working on a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis in November 2015.  s. (BEN GRAY / AJC file)

While there, they worked on -- what else? -- building a Habitat house.

Although it wasn’t all work that day, as this scene captured by AJC photographer Ben Gray, made clear.

Former President Jimmy Carter sneaks a kiss with wife Rosalynn while the couple was working on a Habitat for Humanity one-day build on Nov. 2, 2015 in Memphis, Tenn. (Ben Gray/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Much has changed in the 35 years since that first CWP Habitat trip to New York. There was no 24-hour cable news or social media back then. No dedicated hashtag on Twitter -- #HabitatCWP -- that volunteers on the Mishawaga work site have been using this week to post progress reports: 

 

As well as news of their encounters with other, slightly more famous volunteers.

Like this one (note the clever #GarthWalkedInBehindUs hashtag):

But one thing has never changed over all the years, Jimmy Carter suggested earlier this week.

“This Habitat (build) is not a sacrifice,” Carter told the crowd at Sunday’s opening ceremony. “We sometimes get too hot, sometimes get too cold, sometimes work overtime, but every time we’ve ever been out as volunteers, whether in this  country or around the world, at the end of the habitat project, we always feel that (Rosalynn) and I got more out of it than we put into it.”

Here’s one more photo from this year’s 35th Carter Work Projec. Pretty much the only surprising thing about it is that the Carters are -- briefly -- sitting still. 

Day 2 of the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros

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