President Carter’s Humanity Remembered by Habitat Omaha Staff and Volunteers
With the announcement that America’s oldest living former president, Jimmy Carter, was entering hospice care, Habitat for Humanity of Omaha volunteers and staff began turning their thoughts, prayers and memories toward the servant president builder and his wife, Rosalynn.
There is a simple reason volunteers and staff have fond memories of the former president and their co-worker. Carter, often mistaken as Habitat for Humanity’s founder, spent much of his post-presidential career building Habitat homes.
Through the Jimmy & Rosalynn Work Project, those efforts are estimated to have built more than 4,000 homes in 14 countries, including projects in Haiti and Memphis, where Habitat Omaha volunteers and staff participated.
“As a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity International and a staff member at Habitat Omaha, President Carter is an inspiration,” said Habitat CEO Amanda Brewer. “His message resonated with people from all walks of life. He believes that everyone deserves a chance and that no matter your age, job title or economic status, you can pick up a hammer and build hope.”
Carter’s genuineness, humility, work ethic, religious conviction, focus on human rights and dignity and love for his wife, Rosalynn, resonated with Habitat Omaha volunteers and staff who worked with the former president.
Don Browers, a retired television executive and longtime Habitat Omaha volunteer, accompanied the Carters to Haiti in 2011. The project followed up after an earthquake devasted Haiti in 2010.
“We got up at 0 Dark 30 to catch a commercial flight,” Browers said. “And here’s the former president coming down the aisle (during the flight), shaking hands with every person on the plane, thanking them.”
“He was so genuine and grateful,” Browers said. However, while his humble demeanor didn’t change, his focus did on the job site. “We were working on a house next door to the one the Carters were working on,” he said. “He (Jimmy Carter) worked very hard every day and told the group he didn’t want to do any photo opportunities on site. He told us: ‘If we do photo ops, you’re not getting anything done, and I’m not getting anything done.’ He was very task-focused.”
Erin Grace, an Omaha World-Herald columnist at the time, covered the 2011 Haiti trip for the daily newspaper.
She agreed with Brower’s description of Carter’s genuineness and work ethic. Grace, who now is a communications professional, said it was “cool” that a group of business executives and a newspaper columnist would go build homes in Haiti.
The announcement that the 98-year-old former president was moving into hospice care “brought back a flood of memories,” she said. Those memories went back to when she was six and wrote to then-President Carter asking him about being a peanut farmer. She did receive a response from Landon Kite, a White House staff administrator.
“My whole childhood, we (family members) talked about presidents,” Grace said. “He had this reputation as a failed president, and now (in Haiti) I see him roll up his sleeves and his servant leadership. I’m part of the widespread respect you see him receiving.”
Grace said everyone was out in the sun, and it was 100-plus degrees and “there is Jimmy Carter, Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks. Rosalynn was out in the heat, too. She said she was cynical about the celebrity element on the trip.
“They put in the sweat equity,” she added. “Those two (the Carters) have been a model of marriage and living after your presidency,” she said. “Here we were all kind of hammering in the same direction. It blunted my cynicism.”
Ken Mar, Habitat Omaha Area County Director, spent almost two weeks with the Carters the following year on a second Carter Work Project to Haiti. The work from the earthquake was incomplete, and Hurricane Sandy had added to the devastation.
“The country was in ruins,” Mar said. With devastation all around him, Carter made it clear that we were there for nothing more than building homes. Besides Carter’s work ethic, Mar said, he was struck by his faith.
“He preached like a Ph.D. in Divinity,” Mar said. And his Bible study at the camp combined Biblical lessons into lessons about human dignity and respect.
“Everyone would clamor to him. He made his way around the whole encampment but didn’t want to pull people off the job,” Mar said. “It was powerful to be with him. His legacy, while he sometimes is mistakenly considered the founder of Habitat, is that if it wasn’t for Jimmy Carter, it would have taken another 10 years or more for Habitat to become the organization and brand it is.”
“He wanted to help people and make the world a little bit better,” Mar said. “He would ask, ‘Is the world better tonight?’ It is a reminder that there is nothing more important than taking care of each other.”
Habitat Omaha Renovation Construction Supervisor Mona McGregor worked with the Carters during a 2016 Carter Work Project in Memphis. We were building a large development, about 50 houses in north Memphis near St. Jude Hospital.
“He is an amazing, amazing man,” McGregor said. She also commented on his Bible study presentations. “He was clear-headed and articulate.” She said the whole crew, including a half-dozen Habitat Omaha staff including four other women, was in awe.
Carter and Rosalynn took photos with all the different groups at the site. “Rosalyn turned to me and said, ‘I like you.’ To have Rosalynn say that to you. It makes you feel special.”
McGregor added that Carter was “genuine.” “Jimmy Carter gets it,” she said. “That Habitat is a hand up, not a handout. It reinforces the feeling I have. It (homeownership and safe, affordable housing) is something we need to do. Give of your time and help people out.”
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