Ten years ago next week, volunteers gathering in LaGrange were soaked with heavy rain — more than 3 inches — leading up to the first day of the Habitat for Humanity Jimmy Carter Work Project (JCWP), but it did not dampen their spirits.
Susan Ferguson who served as the event’s co-chair and Jamie Bradfield, who was the president of Habitat’s LaGrange board, recall that the copious amounts of mud actually led to a “miraculous event.” The morning of the first day began with a devotional given by the priest from St. Peter’s Catholic Church in which he “thanked the Lord for the rain,” recalled Ferguson, “which I thought was ridiculous given the heavy rains we’d had.”
But later that day a volunteer from Tennessee was helping to install rafters on one of the houses. He fell and the rafter fell on top of him. Bradfield recalls that the incident could have been very serious but the mud absorbed the shock of the fall and he walked away “just bruised.”
The mud was so thick that another volunteer got stuck in the mud that day. “We got a call that there was a lady stuck in the mud.” says Bradfield. Arriving, he found that the woman had stepped into a small trench that had been cut to lay cable. The mud created a vacuum effect and she “had four guys trying to pull her out,” he said.
“We had to dig around her to get her loose.” he added.
Despite the wet and the mud, some 700 volunteers from LaGrange, across the country and around the world worked to construct 26 housing units in a week, a project known as a “blitz build.” In Hillside Place, just off of Jackson Street in southwest LaGrange, 22 homes were constructed and 10 homes were constructed for Twin Cedars Youth Services an their Magnolia Campus.
Besides bringing out droves of volunteers, former president and Nobel Prize winner Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn visited and lent a hand accompanied by Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller and his wife, Linda. During the course of the week, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue visited and was presented with a tool belt and Miss Teen Georgia America, Diana DeGarmo — who would later compete on “American Idol” — performed for the volunteers.
At Hillside Place, the 22 houses clustered around a small, park-like green space, were meant as a starting point for the rejuvenation of the Hillside community. Though the area has experienced “ups and downs, that shouldn’t reflect badly on the Jimmy Carter Work Project or Habitat for Humanity,” observed Ferguson. “The neighborhood was supposed to be self-sustaining, but it didn’t turn out that way.” she continued.
However, Twin Cedars Executive Director Mike Angstadt says that the buildings constructed for them are “truly a blessing for teen mothers and girls who have no place to go.” He conservatively estimates that the four buildings have served at least 300 at-risk youths since their construction. The largest buildings is now the Annette Boyd Group Home and currently houses up to fourteen at-risk girls while one of the other buildings houses five teen mothers and their babies.
Habitat for Humanity Director Steve Brown notes that the event immediately created “a lot of energy with emphasis on the housing situation which was dire at that time.” It also “laid the foundation for the Habitat affiliate to expand in LaGrange.”
Reflecting on the event now, 10-years later, Jamie Bradfield states that he is still quite proud of the volunteers’ efforts and he notes that since the event LaGrange hasn’t “had anything like that since.” Susan Ferguson mentions that the efforts of the community were remarkable and all the “participants were humbled.”
The Jimmy Carter Work Project — recently dubbed the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project — is an annual event that works to construct multiple housing units for disadvantaged people. Starting in 1984, the event has grown to include projects in the United States and around the world. The 2003 event included builds in Valdosta, Ga. and Anniston, Ala., in addition to LaGrange. Since that time, the project has built homes on the U. S. Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina and in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
Though the tremendous amounts of rain did hamper some of the work, the community pulled together and managed to accomplish a great deal. Bradfield remembers being “amazed at the spirit of the people who participated” and that “there was not a negative comment about the conditions.”