Friday, 26 February 2021

‘It’s like magic’: Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity volunteers build 23 Mishawaka homes


Habitat for Humanity and Jimmy Carter give low-income Hoosiers a chance to own their own home through a massive week-long build in Mishawaka. Indianapolis Star

Over the years, Ericka Santiesteban has watched with envy¬†‚ÄĒ and a hint of sadness¬†‚ÄĒ as¬†friends and family used pencil marks to track their children’s growth on the walls of their homes.

It’s a common ritual, but for this Hoosier mother of three boys, ages 13, 12¬†and 3, an elusive one. Elusive because they’ve never had their¬†own home. Or their own walls.

That’s about to change ‚ÄĒ thanks, in large part, to a former U.S. president and a cadre of hammer-wielding volunteers that included the likes of David Letterman, Garth Brooks¬†and Trisha Yearwood.

This year, for the first time, Indiana was chosen as the location for Habitat for Humanity’s annual Carter Work Project. Since 1984, President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn,¬†have partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build, repair or renovate¬†nearly 4,300¬†homes for people in need across the globe.

Last days of a neighborhood: Babe Denny’s battle since the construction of Lucas Oil
A Southern state:A report has not-so-nice things to say about Indiana

This year, they descended upon Mishawaka to build most of a 23-home subdivision in five days. 

One of those homes¬†‚ÄĒ known to¬†volunteers simply as Home No. 5¬†‚ÄĒ will soon belong to Santiesteban.

Tears crept down the 28-year-old’s cheeks as she¬†explained how she has longed to give her boys a place to call their own, filled with the kind of memories they can‚Äôt pack into moving boxes.

‚ÄúNow my kids will have that, and we‚Äôll have that forever,‚ÄĚ Santiesteban¬†said. ‚ÄúAnd we won‚Äôt have to leave it again.‚Ä̬†

It also means she will finally fulfill that long-awaited loving task.

‚ÄúThe first thing we‚Äôre going to do,” Santiesteban¬†said, “is measure ourselves on a wall.‚ÄĚ

Carter Work Project changes lives

The Carters were $1 million in debt when they left the White House in 1981, but they were eager to give back.  

‚ÄúWe wanted to do¬†something¬†nice for poor people, but it‚Äôs very¬†difficult¬†for anybody … to break down the barrier that exists between well-off people and very poor people,‚ÄĚ President Carter said at a Monday news conference. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs kind of an¬†impenetrable¬†barrier between the two.‚Ä̬†¬†

Carter, who grew up in a Plains, Georgia, farmhouse without water and electricity, said he knows the impact a decent home can have on a family. 

‚ÄúIt transformed our lives,¬†literally, to¬†a better life when we got water in the house to start with,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúAnd then after, when we got¬†electricity,¬†it just transformed everything.‚ÄĚ

The Carter Work Project has taken more than 100,000 volunteers to worksites in countries including Canada, Haiti, Thailand, India and throughout the U.S. since 1984. With projects planned throughout the year, the Carter Work Project will build, renovate or repair 41 homes in South Bend and Mishawaka. 

Nearly 17 percent¬†of people in St. Joseph County live in poverty, according to Habitat.¬†Forty percent of renters in the county ‚ÄĒ nearly 14,500 people ‚ÄĒ are ‚Äúrent overburdened,‚ÄĚ paying more than 30 percent of their gross¬†income to housing.¬†¬†¬†

Infrastructure work on the Mishawaka subdivision began last August on nine acres of donated land. The project’s $4.7 million budget covered the cost of the infrastructure as well as the homes, and Habitat chapters across the state pitched in a total of $325,000 to help fund construction.  

Both over 90, the former president and his wife continue to build.

‚ÄúWe‚Äôre very grateful for the chance to come and work with Habitat. We hope that we continue to do it as long as we‚Äôre physically able, which may not be very long,‚ÄĚ he said, flashing a wry smile. ‚ÄúBut, anyway, we‚Äôre gonna do the best we can.‚ÄĚ

The work doesn’t stop here.

The St. Joseph County chapter recently signed a purchase agreement with the owner to buy the neighboring seven acres for only $70,000, a move that will allow them to gradually double the size of the subdivision, said Jim Williams, president and CEO of the St. Joseph County Habitat chapter. 

‚ÄúWe want obviously to keep the momentum going, we want to keep our¬†citizens¬†engaged,‚ÄĚ Williams said, ‚Äúand we want really this to just be the start.‚Ä̬†


Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

‘A mark on history’

President Carter, wearing a red bandanna around his neck and a tool belt around his waist, kept busy outside House No. 6 as the metallic zing of saws sliced through thunderous hammering.  

Carter, whose post-presidency has typically received more praise than his one term in the White House, remains active in politics and public service. A recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, his namesake organization, the Carter Center, combats preventable diseases and works for peace across the globe.  

Monday morning,¬†he sat down for an interview with CBS This¬†Morning‚Äės John Dickerson to discuss the life and legacy of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain. ¬†

Within just a few hours, he also helped volunteers raise a wall of Cleora Taylor’s future home.  

Taylor, 36, said Carter’s work is a gift she and her four children will not take for granted. 

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like putting a mark on history for my babies,‚Ä̬†Taylor¬†said.¬†¬†

Taylor said the family is living with her grandmother until they can settle into their new home. Surveying the scale of the project, Taylor said it’s beyond anything she could have expected.  

‚ÄúI knew it was a big thing,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúI just didn‚Äôt know how big.‚Ä̬†

A few houses down, Benito and Jhunixa Salazar will finally have space for their family to grow. The couple spent years shuffling between one- and two-bedroom apartments priced at nearly $800 per month with annual increases. 

Benito has two jobs and Jhunixa works part-time while homeschooling and caring for their children, a boy and a girl ages 2 and 4, but the traditional path to homeownership would have been rocky. Through Habitat, they’ve been able to learn about budgeting and financial security. 

‚ÄúSometimes the credit scores might not be the best, sometimes we‚Äôre making it,‚ÄĚ Jhunixa said. ‚ÄúBut if we were to buy a house the regular way, then it would be a little hard on us.‚Ä̬†

At their home and others across the U-shaped neighborhood, flags representing volunteers‚Äô home states and countries flew, a reminder of the ‚Äúgreat love‚ÄĚ the homeowners are being shown, Benito said.¬†¬†

‚ÄúThey¬†may¬†not even be from this city, they‚Äôre from different cities, different states, different¬†countries,‚ÄĚ Benito said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre¬†worldly neighbors right now.‚Ä̬†

‘Who¬†doesn‚Äôt¬†want to be a part of that family?‚Äô¬†¬†

Over the course of the week, 2,000 volunteers will pass through the growing neighborhood, including several famous faces.  

On Monday, country music stars Brooks and Yearwood worked on neighboring houses and Indianapolis native Letterman lent a hand at a home down the street.  

Brooks and Yearwood, who began working with Habitat in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, are recognized as Habitat Humanitarians, along with the Carters.   

Brooks briefly left the construction site Monday to hold a press conference announcing an October concert at Notre Dame, where he said the build was deepening his bond with the surrounding area. 

‚ÄúIf you talk about Notre Dame, for me, the first word that comes up is community. And that right there, people, that‚Äôs another word for church; that‚Äôs having people there for you if you need them,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúAnd who doesn‚Äôt want to be a part of that family?‚Ä̬†¬†

Williams said celebrities such as Brooks draw attention to the project, but the week is primarily about the families.  

‚ÄúThis just gives us a wider and a bigger platform to tell the world that affordable housing does matter ‚ÄĒ it is an important issue ‚ÄĒ¬†and that Habitat does have a way for people to become homeowners that really works,” he said, “and that every family deserves a chance to build a better life for themselves.‚ÄĚ ¬†¬†

St. Joseph County marks the 15th Carter build for Rob Collett of Coconut Creek, Florida. As a gift to the homeowner, Collett brings pink lawn flamingos to every build and has volunteers sign them. 

‚ÄúFor the life of me, I can‚Äôt explain (why I volunteer),‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI just love doing it. It just makes me feel good.¬†Maybe it‚Äôs¬†because I’m selfish;¬†there‚Äôs something I want to do for myself. But you touch so many people when you come to these sites.‚Ä̬†¬†

In 2011, the Carter Work Project built 100 homes near¬†L√©og√Ęne, Haiti, the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake that ravaged the Caribbean nation.¬†That week, Collett met¬†Mapha, a¬†woman who he helped build a¬†new earthquake- and hurricane-proofed home.¬†¬†

When he returned with the Carter Work Project the next year, he made his way back to Mapha’s neighborhood.  

‚ÄúI was walking¬†down¬†the street and I turned the corner, and there she was in her Sunday¬†best,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúShe had the best dress she owned, her¬†makeup¬†was done, her hair was done. We hugged each other and cried like babies.‚Ä̬†

And on the mantle inside her immaculately kept home, Collett said, sat the pink flamingo.  

‚ÄúHer nephew, who¬†interpreted, said, ‚ÄėShe looks at that flamingo every day,‚Äô‚ÄĚ Collett remembered. ‚Äú‚ÄôShe¬†knew you¬†were coming back.‚Äô‚Ä̬†

‘Once in a lifetime’

An hour before sunrise on Tuesday, Santiesteban’s smile lit up the lawn.  

After spending Monday building her home alongside¬†Habitat¬†volunteers, Santiesteban couldn’t get off work. So, instead of constructing, she spent Tuesday morning cheering, planning to leave for the office before work resumed.¬†¬†¬†

“I’m here every morning, just to at least be here, because I want to be a part of it,‚ÄĚ she said.¬†¬†

The brown mulch path leading into the worksite was lined with volunteers and homeowners shaking green and blue pom-poms, welcoming workers as they emerged from vehicles and ambled to a nearby tent and a potato hash breakfast.   

Plenty of water was encouraged ‚ÄĒ Monday‚Äôs heat index reached¬†nearly 100¬†degrees. Sunscreen and lip balm were made available to protect workers from the blistering sun, and leaders lectured on the importance of balancing water, Gatorade and rest.¬†¬†

As the workers prepared for another day, Santiesteban was preparing for life‚Äôs next chapter. She‚Äôs taken Habitat’s required financial literacy and home maintenance classes. For the first time, she‚Äôs ready to settle into a more stable environment she can call her own.

‚ÄúIt has set me up for success all the way through, for life,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚Äú… Now I‚Äôll be able to teach my own kids these things so that way they don‚Äôt make all the mistakes I did.‚Ä̬†¬†¬†

In just one day, her home went from being an empty foundation to having walls and a roof.  

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like magic,‚Ä̬†Santiesteban¬†said. ¬†

And constructing the home herself¬†‚ÄĒ¬†with plenty of help ‚ÄĒ¬†made the experience even more meaningful.¬†¬†

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs an experience that you get once in a lifetime,‚ÄĚ Santiesteban said, ‚Äúand I got lucky.‚Ä̬†¬†

Call IndyStar reporter Holly Hays at 317-444-6156. Follow her on Twitter: @hollyvhays.


Read or Share this story:


« »