How do you plan to spend your time as you enter your 90th year of life on planet Earth? In case you have not given it much consideration, I can share a story of how, together with his wife, one man has done it.

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, did what they have done for the past 30 years. They spent a week of their time building and renovating homes with Habitat for Humanity International.

Carter was president from Jan. 20, 1977 to Jan. 20, 1981. Since leaving the White House, the Carters have spent their time in all manners of work spanning the globe. Their work has included the eradication of diseases, overseeing foreign elections and advocating for mental health issues, to name but a few. In 1982 they established the non-governmental, not-for-profit Carter Center in Atlanta with the motto, “Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope.”

The Carters’ work with Habitat for Humanity International began in 1984 when they traveled to New York City with a busload of volunteers from Georgia to work on the renovation of a tenement building known as Mascot Flats. This became the annual event now known as the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

Habitat for Humanity International is an ecumenical Christian ministry with the mission of eliminating poverty housing from the world. Habitat conducts its work through a network of independent affiliates all over the world in partnership with homeowners who pay for their homes with a combination of sweat equity and a no-profit mortgage. 

So what does all of this have to do with roofing? Roofing contractors and suppliers have played a key role in the continuing success of Habitat for Humanity in this country and others. Many roofing contractors and suppliers have worked with their local Habitat affiliates since their founding. Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1976 by the late Millard Fuller and his wife, Linda. The establishment of local Habitat affiliates in the United States grew exponentially when President and Mrs. Carter became publicly active in the work.

The tie-in with roofing is also enhanced by the fact that Habitat for Humanity addresses the basic human need for shelter, commonly referred to as “a roof over your head,” which is our business.

Over the past 30 years, the Carters and their band of volunteers have traveled all over the country and all over the world, from the Philippines to Europe to Africa and beyond. The construction projects have varied from region to region, always being driven by the local affiliates and built to local codes and traditions.

For the previous two builds, volunteers traveled to Haiti to aid in the rebuilding from the devastating earthquake that hit the island nation in 2010. The latest Carter Project was held in October 2013 with building in Oakland, Calif.; Denver; New York City (Queens and Staten Island); and Union City, N.J. A total of 80 homes were built, renovated or repaired during the weeklong project.

We caught up with the Carters at the New York City phase of the project, where we spent a week with the team repairing 10 homes damaged in October 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. All in there were 675 homes damaged or destroyed in Staten Island, and the New York City Habitat affiliate has the goal of helping to repair or rebuild 100 of them. Many of the New York and New Jersey homeowners were caught short on insurance, and the resources to get construction work are still somewhat scarce with the damage being so widespread.

The Staten Island volunteers were split into 10 teams that were managed by volunteer house leaders and overseen by local construction managers. During this week the majority of the work was conducted on the interior. Some crews installed insulation and hung gypsum wallboard while others rebuilt floors and stairs. There was also a fair amount of tile work completed to get some bathrooms back into usable condition.

Typical of a Habitat worksite, the volunteers run the gamut from construction professionals to skilled handymen to the unskilled but enthusiastic. The homeowners all pitch in and frequently work side by side with volunteers. Our homeowner, Stu, was working outside the home during the week but stopped by when he could, sometimes bringing coffee and always bringing a smile. He had been living in a motel for the last nine months and was thrilled to see the progress that would soon have him sleeping in his own bed.

The work was interesting, to say the least. The affiliate did a great job organizing the work. We lacked for nothing by way of tools and materials, so the work was able to progress seamlessly — well, as seamlessly as can be expected when working on a 40-year-old structure.

Remodeling the interior of an older home is just like re-roofing an older home. All the lines may not be perfectly straight, and you just have to work a little more methodically than you would on a new construction project or newer structure.

Toward the conclusion of the week we were able to attend a press event with the Carters when they visited Mascot Flats, the site of the first Carter Project in 1986. Also in attendance were the CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, Jonathan Reckford, and several of the original homeowners at Mascot Flats.

We learned that 12 of the original 19 homeowners still lived there. The area around the lower east side of Manhattan has gentrified, bearing little resemblance to the site from 30 years ago. The project was clearly a success, and the homeowners had raised their families there with most of the children completing high school and college.

There are many stories of how Habitat homeowners’ lives were transformed by becoming homeowners for the first time. There are nearly as many stories of how volunteers’ lives have been transformed by working on a weeklong build project. One of the more dramatic stories is that of Rosalynn Carter, who told us how she agreed to go to New York but was not going to do any hammering. Now, 30 years later, she boasts of having become a somewhat accomplished carpenter.

We may not all get to see a 90th year, but it is refreshing to see what can be done by one so blessed to reach this milestone. You do not have to be a former president. If you have ever wondered what it is like to give back to your community, just look up your local Habitat for Humanity affiliate at They would be thrilled to hear from you.