Nepal’s misfortune was Memphis’ serendipity. And Arlicia Gilliams', in particular.
That’s the gist of what former President Jimmy Carter said at a North Memphis press conference on Monday, explaining how it was that he and wife Rosalynn happened to be in town on behalf of Habitat for Humanity helping to build a new home on a Looney Avenue vacant lot.
The Carters, pillars of the Habitat for Humanity program since 1984, had intended to be in Nepal this week on a massive home-building project, but popular uprising against the government there had resulted in a border closing; so the Carters, along with country music stars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood came to Memphis instead.
That’s how it was that, on Monday morning, the Carters, Brooks, and Yearwood were toiling away, erecting the frame of a new house that the aforementioned Arlicia Gilliams will end up occupying.
She won’t get it scot-free, and she’s helping in the building of it herself, explained Habitat for Humanity’s international CEO Jonathan Reckford, who, along with Habitat local CEO Dwayne Spencer, presided over the press conference during a brief mid-morning work-break.
Since its founding in 1976 — and especially since the Carters began participating in 1984, skyrocketing the total — Habitat has provided some 360,000 new or rehabbed dwellings all over the world, Reckford said.
The work of construction is done by volunteers, but occupants, like Ms. Gilliams or like Savannah Simmons, the first owner of a Habitat house in 1984, purchase the dwellings with no- or low-interest loans.
President Carter noted the democratizing effect of Habitat’s efforts this way: “It breaks down the barrier between the wealthy and the poor. Habitat opens up a way for people to work alongside poor people and get to know them personally. Those people are just as smart as I am, just as hard working, and have the same values.”
The Memphis home-building project represent the 33rd work-project participating in by the Carters since their first one in 1984, in a New York slum. That one ended up creating a daisy chain of regeneration in the neighborhood, Carter said, and the goal of the current project in Memphis is similar.
During the press conference, Brooks, Yearwood, and other volunteers continued work in the background, the rap-rap of their hammers providing a kind of counterpoint. Various local volunteers, including Memphis mayor0elect Jim Strickland, would lend a hand in the construction project during the day.
The 91-year-old Carter sounded robust and said he felt “fine,” suffering few discomforts from ongoing treatment for a metastasized melanoma he was diagnosed with in August.
He promised to be back next year to work on a previously scheduled Habitat project.
Monday’s project was part of an ongoing larger one in the Uptown area. Before it is over, Habitat’s efforts in Shelby County will have resulted in 21 new homes, 33 beautification projects, and 45 aging-in-place-projects, Reckford said.