What do you get when you bring together a former President and First Lady of the United States, a mayor, a bunch of church, civic and corporate sponsors, a couple of country music stars, some hard-working first-time homeowners, and a few hundred volunteers?

Well, recently this eclectic combination gathered together as part of the 2016 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project (JRCWP) with Habitat for Humanity in Memphis, Tenn.

Roofing Contractor was there, powered by a corporate sponsorship from our parent company, BNP Media. It was this editor’s honor to travel to Memphis — with his gorgeous and talented wife, Mickey — to spend a week as volunteer builders. Many others provided individual sponsorships and a lot of moral support to our effort.

The Mission

Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) is one of the most widely-recognized and respected non-profits in the nation. Its work, however, is frequently misunderstood. Habitat builds with people who would otherwise not qualify to become a homeowner in the open market. The operative word there is “with,” not “for,” as Habitat forms partnerships with its homeowners who must help build their own homes alongside other volunteers. The future residents pay for the home with an affordable mortgage.

The other popular misconception is that former President Jimmy Carter founded HFHI. He didn’t, but he and his wife of seventy years, Rosalynn, did raise the visibility of the organization when they took a busload of friends from Georgia to New York City in 1984 for a week of building that started a 33-year tradition.

The Carters’ annual week-long building adventures have taken place all over the globe and typically alternate between the U.S. one year and internationally the next. This isn’t just a photo op for the Carters, either. They show up to work as volunteers during the build week and serve as an inspiration to the legions of volunteers who follow them and make sure the job is done “just right.”

Speaking of legions of volunteers (and country/rock stars), the Carters were joined on their build site in Memphis by legendary performers Garth Brooks and wife, Trisha Yearwood. Like the Carters, they strapped on a tool belt and hard hat every day just like the rest of us to contribute. And this was not their first rodeo as they’ve volunteered with Habitat around the globe since 2007. 

The Memphis Project

Memphis, Tenn. is not only the birthplace of the blues, home of some of the best BBQ on the planet, and the shrine and resting place of the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley. The city is a thriving metropolis, headquarters of top tier corporations such as Auto Zone and FedEx. And like most metro areas with an urban center, it has its share of challenges — substandard housing being one. Memphis isn’t ignoring this issue, but tackling it head-on.

For starters, the Memphis affiliate wasn’t chosen to be the Carter Work Project site, as most are; they asked for it. Memphis Habitat for Humanity (MFHF) president and CEO Dewayne Spencer took the initiative two years ago by contacting HFHI to put Memphis at the top of the list.

Taking on a Carter Project is no small feat for a local affiliate as it requires a tremendous amount of effort to stage in addition to keeping up with day-to-day operations. But MFHF is not an ordinary affiliate, having constructed over 500 homes since its founding in 1983. While focused on home construction, MHFH has embraced community development with alternative programs to rebuild the community, including one called Aging in Place.

This program works with senior citizens on a fixed income to help repair the homes they own but struggle to maintain. By installing ramps and accessible bathrooms and repairing roofs, windows, walls, and doors, these senior citizens can safely stay in their own home and out of institutional care.

Working in tandem with other non-profits, civic, church, and government agencies, MHFH has taken on the redevelopment of the Uptown area of Memphis. Long in decline, Uptown is gradually transforming into a vibrant, livable community. The Carter Work Project contributed 19 new homes situated together in the neighborhood known as Bearwater Park.

Sponsorships for the project followed Tennessee’s Housing Development Agency, which started the ball rolling with a $1 million challenge grant. The local Community Redevelopment Agency came through with the infrastructure for the development and the land was donated by Oasis of Hope, an organization of Hope Church.

Another rock star of sorts — at least in Memphis — is Mayor Jim Strickland. Recently elected to the post, he attended the opening and closing ceremonies, the mid-week fundraising gala, and worked on-site nearly every day. Most politicians (and rock stars and sports celebrities) are usually good for one event, or part of one — typically long enough for the photo op. Strickland put his time where his heart is, which is but one of many reasons to hope for the successful revitalization of the Uptown area of Memphis.

Let the Building Begin!

The Jimmy and Rosalynn Work Project in Memphis started the week with 19 home sites in varying stages of construction, from “slab only” to dried-in models that were ready for interior finish. Working with small crews of twenty or so volunteers each day, the work schedule was demanding. Instead of mounting a “blitz build” model, this project was all about moving construction forward in phases. All 19 homes were not to be completed in this one build week, but would be completed in a matter of weeks.

The Carters and their team worked on one of the slab-only sites and it was clear that they were in their element. They had to take on the work of media interviews and meetings with key sponsors, but they were on the job first thing every morning, wielding framing hammers, levels, speed squares, and other tools of the trade. Most former presidents are not active participants on construction crews, but Carter, now in his early 90’s, may have veered into the Fountain of Youth by simply never slowing down.

For my part, getting up and going to work on a physically-demanding worksite everyday was a bit of a challenge, but nothing that a few aspirin couldn’t handle. Besides, the food, drinks and entertainment at the end of each day were worth the journey. And, as always, I learned a few new tricks in residential construction that will come in handy someday. 

The Bearwater Park development was designed not just as a group of homes built in the same place, but as a community. The homes are arranged together with fronts facing green space where neighbors and their children can gather. This theme is vital to the redevelopment of the Uptown area.

Memphis Habitat is in the business of building homes year-round and their full-time construction professionals know how to deal with volunteer labor. Each of the homes under construction were managed by volunteer house leaders with close support and direction from the MHFH pros. The volunteers came from all over the world, including a large contingent from Canada, but most were from the surrounding communities.

In addition to the new homes, the JRCWP also included ten beautification projects and six Aging in Place projects in the area around the Bearwater Park development. 

The Partnership

The experience of working as a volunteer is underrated, at least in this editor’s opinion. Folks who’ve never taken a week of vacation to travel to another place in the country (or the world) to work on building lives and communities just don’t know what they’re missing.

And one of the best things about volunteering on a Habitat project is being there alongside the people who will occupy the finished home. We had the honor to work with Trakeysha, who kept us smiling and on task. Like most of the volunteers, she had a new learning experience every day. But for her, the experience of knowing just how her home was put together will pay some additional dividends in the years to come.

In addition to the boots and hard hats on the ground, the sponsorships are part of what keeps the entire Habitat system running. Without capital to finance infrastructure, buy materials and attract professional labor (much of the roofing on Habitat homes is installed by professional roofing contractors), nothing would happen.

Many roofing contractors support Habitat for Humanity in their own communities. It’s good work, and I thank you for your partnership. I also thank the parent of Roofing Contractor, BNP Media, for sponsoring the Memphis project. And to the dozens of friends, many of whom are roofing industry leaders, who sponsored my participation in this project.

Wait ‘Till Next Year!

Intrigued? Want to participate in community service that is both local and worldwide, and most decidedly close to our own industry? The 2017 JRCWP returns to the international stage as it helps Canada celebrate its 150th anniversary with the construction of 150 Habitat homes across our neighbor to the north. There are two key builds planned for Winnipeg, Manitoba and Edmonton, Alberta. Roofing Contractor is making plans to be there now. Join us!

Click here to learn more about the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project and your local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International.