The former U.S. president slept in a room at a dormitory at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. By 7 a.m. last Tuesday, Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn had eaten breakfast in the cafeteria and were aboard a bus full of volunteer home builders bound for a construction site five km away. Once the most powerful man in the world, Carter spent the day working with his wife and a group of unpaid laborers, installing windows, drywall and vinyl siding on a small three-bedroom bungalow. The Carters were part of an army of 1,100 volunteers who, in just five days last week, built 40 homes for low-income families in 10 communities across Canada. The nonprofit, Georgia-based organization Habitat for Humanity International sponsored the event as part of its program to provide affordable housing for poor families around the world. During his day in Kitchener-Waterloo, the 68-year-old Carter attracted a crowd of onlookers who came to watch a former American president swing a hammer. “This is the kind of thing I enjoy doing,” he told Maclean’s. “The alternative is to loaf around the house and spend my time playing golf or fishing.”
Although Carter retired from public life in January, 1980, after losing the presidency to Ronald Reagan, the hurt still seems to surface in the occasional—if subtle—partisan jabs he takes at his former Republican adversaries. While Carter, the lone Democrat among living ex-presidents, travels the world promoting democracy, human rights and the economic well-being of less developed countries, former Republican chief executives have pursued decidedly different interests. Reagan has built a $50-million presidential library and museum outside Los Angeles and receives lucrative fees for speaking engagements. Gerald Ford, an avid golfer and Carter’s Republican predecessor, has become wealthy by serving as a consultant and director on the boards of numerous companies. Richard Nixon, who resigned amid the disgrace of Watergate in August, 1974, has spent nearly 20 years trying to rebuild his reputation. But Carter, widely regarded as an ineffective president, has won admiration for his humanitarian work. “I really enjoyed being president and I think I had a good term,” Carter said last week, adding: “It was not easy being defeated.”
Carter and Rosalynn rarely spend more than one or two days a week at their home in Plains, Ga., the farming village 200 km south of Atlanta where they were born and raised. Most of the time they are visiting Africa, Central America and the Caribbean where they are involved in programs to inoculate children, increase food production, monitor elections and investigate human rights abuses. The former president operates his humanitarian programs through the Carter Center, a research and public policy institute that he formed in 1982 in a partnership with Emory University in Atlanta. Carter, who has written several books, including last year’s Talking Peace, which encourages young readers to push for peace and democracy around the world, plans to publish a book of poetry next year. “I happen to be one of the younger men who survived the White House,” said Carter. “I had a lot of things on my personal
agenda that I wanted to continue working on.” Few of Carter’s post-presidential activities have attracted as much public and media attention as his labors on behalf of Habitat for Humanity. “It’s the most popular thing I do,” he said. “We get a lot more credit than we really deserve. Rosalynn and I only build one house per year.” But Habitat builds an average of 23 homes a day and will be putting up about 30 a day by 1994, according to Millard Fuller, the tall, lean, exuberant Alabama native who founded the organization in 1976.
Fuller strolled around Habitat’s Kitchener site in coveralls, a blue denim shirt and orange hard hat, meeting volunteers and answering questions about Habitat. Like Carter a born-again Christian, Fuller said he founded the organization after experiencing a spiritual and marital crisis in the early 1970s. He sold his share of a profitable publishing business and a successful law practice in Montgomery, Ala., for about $1 million, donated the money to Christian charities and took up missionary work.
Habitat built its first homes in Americus, Ga., where its head office is now located, and has since erected more than 20,000 homes in 40 countries. The organization buys land, usually at discounted prices, from municipalities, churches or developers. It then purchases or receives donated construction materials from manufacturers. Volunteers build the homes, which are sold to low-income families who qualify for no-interest, 15to 25-year loans. Buyers must also contribute 500 hours of their time to building Habitat homes. “It’s God’s work,” said Fuller. “We use the philosophy of the hammer. We may disagree with one another theologically or philosophically, but we can all wield the hammer as an expression of love.”
Carter began devoting one week a year to a Habitat-sponsored house building blitz in 1984, and the annual event now attracts hundreds of volunteers from all over North America, Europe and Australia. Carter’s day in Kitchener-Waterloo, along with four days in Winnipeg, was his first Canadian foray for Habitat. The sites were fenced and security guards controlled the entrances; inside, the atmosphere was both chaotic and festive. Volunteers in baseball caps or bright yellow and orange hard hats scurried about the site, toting materials, driving nails and sawing wood.
Amid the attention, Carter worked quietly and with a diligence that impressed his coworkers. “He just kept working steadily,” said Soody Kleiman, an electrical contractor who worked with Carter on one of the Winnipeg homes. “He didn’t waste any time talking to anybody and his wife worked right along with him.” Explaining his interest in the project, Carter said people need a good home as a foundation for a better life. ‘Without a decent place to live, it’s pretty hard to do anything about education or unemployment,” he added. “It’s hard to give people hope for the future.” That was among Carter’s declared objectives when he was president of the United States; now, as an idealistic private citizen, he may be pursuing it more successfully.
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