Former President Jimmy Carter, TV host David Letterman visit campus for Work Project Opening Ceremony
Tom Naatz | Monday, August 27, 2018
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, David Letterman had a problem.
Letterman was watching news coverage of the disaster that had just afflicted New Orleans and the entirety of the Gulf Coast, and he desperately wanted to help out; his only problem was he wasn’t sure how he could do it.
“As you see, [there‘s] 24-hour coverage of disasters and horrible things that happen to humans around the globe, and if you’re hooked up properly, you’re drawn to that,” Letterman said. “You want to do something but you don’t know what it is you want to do. And this is the dynamic that occurred while watching the storm Katrina ravage New Orleans, Louisiana.”
Ultimately, Letterman called Habitat for Humanity, the global nonprofit housing organization and gathered some friends and travelled to New Orleans to start building and rebuilding houses.
Letterman, the longtime late night talkshow host whose appearance at Notre Dame‘s Purcell Pavilion was not previously announced, introduced former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, at the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. This annual Habitat for Humanity program, which includes participation and sponsorship from the former first couple, focuses on building houses in a geographic area one week out of the year. The 2018 iteration will be taking place in St. Joseph County this week and Notre Dame hosted the opening ceremonies.
Jim Williams, the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity’s St. Joseph County chapter, lauded the historic moment the program represents.
“This truly is a historic moment for our community,“ Williams said. “It’s a momentous occasion. And for all of you to show up here on a Sunday evening and join us for this occasion, I can’t tell you how much that means to us.”
According to a press release provided at the event, the Carters will help a group of volunteers and future homeowners build 22 “new, affordable homes” this week in Mishawaka. When lumped in with additional construction projects throughout the year, 41 homes will be “built, renovated, or repaired” in both South Bend and Mishawaka.
Speakers at the event included Williams, University President Fr. John Jenkins, Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford, Benito Salazar, a local man who lives with his family in a Habitat for Humanity constructed home, Letterman and the Carters.
Jenkins offered a blessing for the Work Project. In his remarks beforehand, he noted President Carter’s connection with the former University President Fr. Ted Hesburgh.
“You worked with him on so many different projects — on peace-building, on human rights, on avoiding mass-starvation [and on] Cambodia with you, Mrs. Carter,” Jenkins said. I know that Fr. Ted is looking down on us and smiling. So happy we are here.”
Several speakers lauded LeRoy Troyer, a local architect who has played a large role in Habitat for Humanity by serving on the organization’s board and serving as President Carter’s “house leader” on every Carter Work Project since 1986. A tribute video lauded Troyer’s dedication to Habitat for Humanity.
“The Carter Work Project can be anywhere in the world,” the video said. “It only happens once a year. But it’s here, in St. Joseph County, in large part thanks to LeRoy Troyer. Ask 100 people to show you what love looks like. They’ll all point to LeRoy Troyer. Thank you, LeRoy, and may God bless you.”
During his remarks, Reckford said he noticed the sense of community that springs up at every individual build site. Reckford also said he was impressed with the sturdy construction of Habitat for Humanity homes, saying a Habitat constructed neighborhood in Haiti held up remarkably well when Hurricane Sandy hit the island in 2012. He also discussed the scarcity of affordable housing throughout the world.
“A big reason we do this is to bring attention to the fact that right now in the U.S. we have an affordable housing crisis,” Reckford said. “And it’s even worse in the rest of the world. There is nowhere in the United States where a full-time, minimum wage employee can afford a one-bedroom apartment on less than a third of his or her income.”
Reckford thanked the Carters for their work to alleviate the problem of affordable housing.
“President and Mrs. Carter’s involvement in Indiana is going to bring attention to not just the need in this community and state but to the need nationally and globally,” he said. “And they have been such extraordinary witnesses and such extraordinary ambassadors to bring attention to that need.”
The next speaker, Salazar, said he and his wife were struggling to find an affordable housing option for their growing family when they heard about Habitat, applied and ultimately were accepted. They, along with their future neighbors, have been laying the groundwork for the project in a program Habitat for Humanity likes to refer to as “sweat equity.” Their future home is being constructed as part of the Carter Work Project.
“Knowing that my children can grow in a home that their mother and father have worked so hard for means so much,” Salazar said. “We shall have the space to grow and play, we shall be putting money into a home that we can eventually own and say, ‘It is ours.’ We shall have a new beginning.”
Finally, Letterman introduced the Carters. After relating the story of his first involvement with the organization after Katrina, he discussed all of the subsequent work he’s done with it, most recently in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. He thanked President Carter and Rosalynn for their work.
“In my life, I have always struggled and envied people who have figured out a way to make a difference in the world,” Letterman said. “People who know how, as we like to say it, ‘move the needle.’ I would not have known to call Habitat for Humanity if it wasn’t for President Carter and Rosalynn. It’s because of these two people that my friends and I were able to find a way to help in a very, very small way.”
In brief closing remarks, the Carters each thanked the people who make the Carter Work Project possible and extolled the value of helping others.
The former president noted the large number of people who have volunteered with the Carter Work Project since its inception 35 years ago.
“One of the most important statistics that Habitat had … for us this year was we built 4,200-and-something houses in 14 countries,” President Carter said. “But the main thing was 100,000 volunteers have worked with us on our different projects, beginning with 42 in the first time in New York.”
President Carter said Troyer was the best volunteer they have ever had. Offering further tribute to Troyer, he said the architect always reminds him of the faith-based dimensions of the work.
“He has a remarkable way of inspiring us to keep on working, but he always has an ability to inject into it the purpose of Habitat. And that is to carry out the mandate of our savior Jesus Christ,” he said.
Rosalynn discussed briefly her friendship with Fr. Hesburgh, noting they had worked together to help Cambodian refugees.
“Well, this is so great to be back at Notre Dame, from which I have an honorary degree,” Rosalynn said. “When Jimmy was president, there were refugees in Thailand coming from Cambodia, I think. I went to see them, and when I got home I had a phone call from Fr. Ted saying, ‘Let’s raise money and help those refugees.’ And of course, I was thrilled. And we raised a lot of money and became very close friends with Fr. Ted.”
The former first lady closed the ceremony by thanking those in attendance.
“I want to recognize all of you — everybody who has worked to make this project a great success, and the homeowners and everybody,” Rosalynn said. “But I also want to thank the donors because Habitat for Humanity always needs donors. This would not be possible tonight if had not been for the donors. All of you who worked ahead of time, all of you who are going to be working again, and everybody else who supports Habitat. I know you are going to be supporting with contributions, right? And now you know what a wonderful organization it is. And so I thank you from the bottom of my heart and look forward to working with you, who are going to be at the camp site, tomorrow.”