"A year ago in August, I thought I had two or three weeks to live. It'd already moved to part of my liver, and I've had four different cancers in my brain," said Carter in an exclusive interview with the Flyer
during a break from installing siding on a Habitat house near Uptown. "I was prescribed some new medicine, and it worked on me, thank goodness."
The Carters announced that they'd be working on this project to build 19 new homes in Bearwater Park, just north of Uptown, last November. Their planned 32nd Habitat project in Nepal last year was canceled due to civil unrest in that country, so the presidential pair came to Memphis instead. They built one home then and made the announcement that the 33rd project would come to Memphis in 2016. But he had cancer then, and he said he wasn't sure he'd make it back.
"I told the news reporters I'd be back [this] year. But I didn't know if I was going to come back or not," Carter said.
Now cancer-free, Carter is back to work — working from about 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily this week alongside his wife (she's 89) and country stars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, who are also in Memphis helping with the Habitat project. The four are working on a house together, one of 18 new homes along a residential street called Unity Lane. The Carters started their annual Habitat project in 1984, and each year, they travel to a different location around the world.
"We've been to 14 foreign countries, some of them several times. The largest we had was 14,000 volunteers, and we built 293 houses in five days. That was in the Philippines," Carter said.
In Memphis, 1,500 volunteers are working on the project, and they've traveled from all over. The recipients for the 19 homes have already been selected by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis, and most have been out working on their own homes on the site.
Damonic Davis has been working on her home all week. She and her two young kids have been living with her mom and sharing one room since Davis divorced a couple years ago. She and the others must put in 350 to 500 hours of sweat equity to qualify for the program.
"I've been divorced for about two years, and Habitat is helping me and my family get our very first house. It's giving me the ability to provide stability, financially and shelter-wise, for my children," Davis said.
Carter said, earlier in the week, he met another Memphis Habitat house recipient who had been homeless and addicted to drugs just a few years back.
"He told me that seven years ago, he was living under a bridge. He was addicted to drugs, and he decided to turn his life around," Carter said. "He got a job at a fast food place, and now he's in charge of Chick-fil-A's kitchen. He told me about all the different sandwiches Chick-fil-A makes."
The Carter project is helping Memphis Habitat complete their five-year commitment to build 50 homes and do 100 critical repairs in Uptown.
"We've already done 32, so this will put us over 50," said Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis President and CEO Dwayne Spencer.
In addition to building 19 new homes, the Carter project is also working on 10 neighborhood beautification projects, like planting shrubs and grass and doing touch-up painting.
"We did a windshield survey of the community and identified houses that we thought needed some love and care. We knocked on doors and asked if they'd be receiving of it," Spencer said.
They're also doing six "aging in place" projects, which means building ramps for seniors. That work is funded through the Plough Foundation.
When asked why they chose Memphis this year, Carter took a moment to praise the Memphis Habitat organization.
"They offer a wide range of services that other Habitats don't provide. For example, if you're over 75 years old, and you have a broken window or a door that won't shut, [they'll fix it]. For instance, last year [when we were in Memphis], we worked on a house where one side of the living room was six inches lower than the other side because the foundation had rotted out."
A year ago this month, former President Jimmy Carter announced that he had a form of skin cancer that had spread to his brain. Just a year later, 91-year-old Carter and his wife Rosalynn are out in the Memphis heat building houses for the 33rd Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project for Habitat for Humanity.