VALDOSTA -- The long-awaited Jimmy Carter Work Project 2003 starts today with almost 2,000 volunteers combining their efforts to build 25 houses in seven days.

Volunteers began arriving at the Lowndes High School gym at 11:30 a.m. Friday to start registration until 5:30 p.m. They then moved to the cafetorium for an orientation and safety briefing and later were served a meal provided by America's Second Harvest of South Georgia.

About 700 of the JCWP volunteers come from Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, Uganda and Zambia, JCWP officials said. Some of the volunteers have worked together on previous builds, and they greeted each other with handshakes and hugs.

For some it was literally a family reunion. John Bennett from Fort Worth, Texas, caught up with his father, George Bennett, who is the pastor of First Christian Church in Valdosta. John volunteered here for his first Habitat project because of his father. George Bennett was involved in last year's JCWP in South Africa.

John had heard his father talk about the Valdosta effort, and he decided to make his annual visit to Valdosta to help his parents. His reason for volunteering is to get involved with a community project.

Mike Berger from Clyde, Ohio, and Craig Feick from Bellevue, Ohio, were participating in their first JCWP build, but they have been involved with other Habitat projects. Their first experience was about three years ago in their home state, Berger said. Both Berger and Feick are here as representatives for Whirlpool and Lowe's, which are teaming up to help with the JCWP.

Berger is looking at the JCWP as an opportunity to meet more people with a common cause. "The last build that we had, it was people that I see every day at work," Berger said. "This gives me an opportunity to see a different part of the country and meet different people. That's what I'm looking for, and the ability to help somebody else out."

Feick expects some difficulties at first because there will be different people with different skills. However, he believes that everyone will pull together to build something unique in seven days.

There were also JCWP veterans present who keep coming back year after year, and strong friendships have formed as a result. Frederick Simmons, from Pearland, Texas, and Edwin Proctor, from Romeo, Mich., are two such volunteers and friends. Simmons was involved in Houston, Texas, Americus, Ga., and South Africa.

Valdosta will be Proctor's sixth JCWP. His first project was in Houston, where he met Simmons. That project was followed by the Philippines; Americus, Ga., where he met Simmons again, South Korea, and then they worked on the same house in South Africa, Proctor said.

"We made arrangements when we left South Africa that we would try and work on the same house, and the only thing we got accomplished is that we're roommates," Proctor said, laughing.

"We're two doors down," Simmons added. "They put a wall in between us."

One of things that Proctor has noticed since his arrival here has been the generosity of the volunteers that come here from different parts of the country. "My goal, and I think pretty much with Fred also, is to come here and have fun, to be safe, build a home and enjoy our time here and go home safely," Proctor said.

There will be about 30 people assigned to the work crews of each home. David "Goose" Connolly is one of the contractors who will assist Will Ruttencutter, JCWP director of construction during the Valdosta JCWP. Connolly was asked by the affiliate to help because of his past experience with other projects, which number about two dozen, he said. "This is my fourth Carter project that I've done," Connolly said.

Today the volunteers hope -- if the weather holds -- to dry the houses in, which means getting the roofs up on a majority of the houses. "There might be one or two houses that don't get all the roofs up, but we'll be able to catch them up by Sunday morning," Connolly said.

The most difficult part about the project is getting everybody on the houses at first, Connolly said. The challenge lies in bringing a thousand different individuals together as a cohesive unit that builds houses.

It's always amazing to watch in that first hour or so as everyone finds their niche, Connolly said.

However, after the first few hours they get in the groove, and it all runs smoothly, Connolly said.

To contact reporter Rip Prine, please call 244-3400, ext. 237.

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