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Jimmy Carter: How volunteering gave me joy

"If I Had a Hammer" recounts poignant stories about the nonprofit group Habitat for Humanity and the work it has done to build homes. In this excerpt, President Jimmy Carter writes about his experiences and shares why the organization is so important to him.
/ Source: TODAY books

"If I Had a Hammer," by David Rubel, recounts poignant stories about the nonprofit group Habitat for Humanity and the work it has done to build homes. In the book's foreword, President Jimmy Carter writes about his experiences and shares why the organization is so important to him. An excerpt.

When I left the White House, retired by the results of the 1980 election, I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I knew that I had a life expectancy of twenty-five more years, and I wondered how I could capitalize on the experience and knowledge of having been the leader of the greatest nation in the world. Looking to my Christian faith for a way forward, I began teaching Sunday school again at Maranatha Baptist Church — where my wife, Rosalynn, and I attend services in our hometown of Plains, Georgia.

Our religious beliefs are important to us. I have taught Sunday school since I was a teen, and we attend services regularly, but for a time that had been the extent of it. Like many people, Rosalynn and I have searched to find an outlet to put that faith into action. Rarely have we found the opportunity to follow Jesus Christ’s example of reaching out to those who are poor and in need and treating them as equals.

The underlying problem is that sometimes it is difficult for people like us — who have homes, good educations, and fruitful careers — to cross the chasm that separates us from people who may have none of these blessings. Often, the needy are scorned by us more affluent people who think to ourselves, Well, if those poor people would only work as hard as I do or study as hard as I do, then they could provide a good home for their families, just as I do. That kind of prejudice can be difficult to overcome.

Fortunately for Rosalynn and me, the international headquarters of Habitat for Humanity was located in Americus, Georgia, just nine miles from Plains. In Habitat’s work, building homes for those in need, we saw the opportunity — as so many others have — to put our faith into practice.

The goal of Habitat for Humanity is to rid the world of substandard, or poverty, housing. Habitat works hard to do this by building simple homes in partnership with families in need. These partner families pay the full cost of their new homes over time through no-profit loans that Habitat grants them. The prices of Habitat homes remain affordable because the homes aren’t extrav­agant and because they’re built with volunteer labor, including the labor of the partner families.

There’s no way to describe exactly why Habitat means so much to me, but I will try. If you are a person of faith, you learn certain basic lessons about truth, justice, love, and sharing that shape your life. It doesn’t matter whether you learn these lessons in a church (as I did), in a synagogue, in a mosque, or in a temple. Wherever the lessons are learned, they remain largely the same. One is that people who have been blessed with wealth should share that wealth with others who are in need. Finding a way to do this, however, can be hard because of the divide that separates the rich and the poor.

People tend to feel most comfortable with those just like themselves — people who have the same skin color, who talk like us, who live in equally nice homes — so we often shut out others who are different. It’s not easy to break through the barriers that we naturally erect. The great gift of Habitat for Humanity is that it offers us a way to reach out to fellow humans who don’t have a decent place in which to live. In fact, it’s the best way that I know to live out the highest moral values of my faith, because Habitat sees decent housing as a human right.

Human rights can be defined in many different ways. If you ask Americans on the street to name some human rights, they are likely to say freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble, the right to a trial by jury, or the right to elect one’s leaders. Those are perfectly good legal human rights. But one of the most important — a human right that people often forget — is the right to lead a good life. By this I mean the right to have food to eat, a place to sleep at night, access to doctors and education, and a decent job, as well as self-respect and dignity.

We affluent Americans frequently fail to realize that these things are missing from the lives of many people, not only around the world but also here in our own country. When the new millennium began in 2000, I was asked to make a few speeches in different places around the world about the greatest challenge facing humanity. It didn’t take me long to identify what that challenge was: the growing separation between rich and poor. Did you know that in the year 1900, the people who lived in the world’s ten richest countries were, on average, about nine times richer than the people who lived in the world’s ten poorest countries? That doesn’t seem like a lot, but as time passed, the gap widened. By 1960, the world’s richest people were thirty times wealthier than the world’s poorest people, and today the world’s richest people are more than seventy-five times more wealthy!

Even worse, there are many more poor people than most of us realize. Over half of the world’s six billion people live on less than two dollars a day. Over a billion people live on less than one dollar a day. Imagine how you might live on just one dollar a day, and you can get some idea of their plight. That one dollar a day would have to pay for food, shelter, and clothing; and even if it did, which isn’t likely, you would have nothing left over for education, health care, or the future. Not surprisingly, most people who earn only a few dollars a day don’t eat well and are forced to live in slums. Even in America, the wealthiest nation in the world, nearly one in three people lives in a house that neither you nor I would consider a fit place to live.

Habitat makes it possible for us to work side by side with partner families and help them improve their lives so that they can not just survive but thrive in the world. Helping a family in need move into a home is the primary mission of Habitat for Humanity. Yet, because of the unique way in which Habitat operates, the organization accomplishes much more. It brings together people of different back­grounds and stations in life to create an environment in which everyone is equal.

I’ve learned that these new homeowners are just as hardworking and ambitious as I am, their family values as just as good as mine, and they want the same things for themselves and their children as I want for me and mine. What Rosalynn and I have seen time and again is that when people become homeowners, their dignity and self-respect increase dramatically. Because they’ve worked so hard themselves to complete the home, they become filled with a new pride that inspires them to reach for other things that they previously considered out of their grasp, such as an education.

We know this because we often revisit Habitat sites where we have built in the past in order to see what has happened to the homes and the neighborhoods. Never have we seen a Habitat home with graffiti on the walls or a broken windowpane that wasn’t repaired or a lawn that wasn’t mowed. People who build and pay for their own homes are proud of what they have accomplished, and they don’t let their homes deteriorate.

You can see this pride in the faces of the partner families on the day that they receive the keys to their new home. They know that they aren’t being given a handout but a hand up, because they have done their share of the work and they will be paying their share of the cost. Participating in this ceremony, especially when you have helped in constructing the house, can be an overwhelming, emotional experience.

There is no question that helping to create a decent home for a partner family is a significant act of giving, but volunteers typically find that they receive something in return that is even more valuable: a feeling of satisfaction and a connection to other people. Knowing that you have worked alongside other volunteers to change a family’s life is a powerful feeling that you will want to experience again and again. For this reason, Habitat volunteers keep coming back to work on Habitat projects.

Rosalynn and I began working regularly on Habitat job sites in 1984, when we arranged for a group of forty-two of our friends to travel to New York City for a weeklong project rebuilding an apartment house on the Lower East Side. Since then, we have spent one week every year leading a work project either here in the United States or in a foreign country such as South Africa, Hungary, or the Philippines. We haven’t missed a year yet, and we expect to continue as long as we are able.

One reason is the way the work makes us feel. In all of our lives, there are usually a few precious moments when we feel exalted — that is, when we reach above our normal level of existence to a higher plane of excitement and achievement.

I remember feeling that way when Rosalynn agreed to marry me and when our children were born. Taking the oath of office as president of the United States was another moment of exaltation for me, as was seeing the fruition of the time I spent negotiating a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, not a word of which has been broken to this day. When I went to the army hospital in Germany where the hostages that had been taken in Iran were being treated after their release, I was nervous because I didn’t know how they would receive me. But when they all stood up and cheered as I walked into the room and then embraced me one by one with tears in their eyes, I felt exalted.

It may surprise you, but I also experience a feeling of exaltation at the end of each Habitat work project, when I give a Bible as a gift to the new homeowners, along with the keys to their new house. My heart and soul always are exalted, and sometimes tears of joy run down my face.

I predict that every one of you who volunteers to help others in need will feel this same sense of exaltation. I believe that, in making what seems to be a sacrifice, you will find fulfillment in the memorable experience of helping others less fortunate than yourself.

When you pay your own way to a Habitat job site in a distant land and furnish your own tools, and you’re working hard and getting up early, you can sometimes think to yourself, This is a big sacrifice I’m making for the folks who are going to live in this house. But what you’ll find is that the “sacrifice” actually is a blessing. I know this because I’ve learned the secret that so many other Habitat volunteers have learned: you always get much more out of the work than you put in.