By Jessica Pope

VALDOSTA -- With only two days remaining to complete 27 homes, Valdosta Jimmy Carter Work Project volunteers received the motivation needed to overcome the intense South Georgia heat and humidity and get the job done.

Wednesday morning, former U.S. President and Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, arrived at the build site to offer words of encouragement and a helping hand.

"With this project, not only are the homeowners blessed but every volunteer too," Carter said.

The Carters joined forces with Habitat for Humanity International in 1984 after leading a work group to New York City to help renovate a six-story building for 19 families in need of decent, affordable shelter. From that single experience emerged the annual Jimmy Carter Work Project, a week-long blitz build initiative held at different locations each year and featuring a host of volunteers from around the world.

"Habitat has opened up unprecedented opportunities for me to cross the chasm that separates those of us who are free, safe, financially secure, well fed, and housed, and influential enough to shape our own destiny from our neighbors who enjoy few, if any, of these advantages of life," Carter said.

A self-proclaimed Christian, the man from Plains describes himself and all other Christians as "a little Christ." He said all Christians should emulate the life of Jesus and reach out to those in need, those who are suffering, those who are outcast.

Carter said once the barrier between "us" and "them" is knocked down, a revelation occurs as the two groups realize there are not many differences between them.

"All these homeowners are just as intelligent as I am," he said. "They are just as ambitious, just as hardworking ... It's surprising how we underestimate people."

Stephanie Doe, a single mother of two, thanked God for Habitat for Humanity and the many volunteers who dedicated a week of their time to helping her and others realize their dream of home ownership.

"It's a blessing to finally be a home owner," she said, as tears streamed down her face. "This is a day to rejoice. I am grateful for everyone's efforts."

When Doe receives the keys to her new home on Friday, she and her children will be able to leave behind the tiny two-bedroom apartment they once called home.

Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, first president of Zambia, said Habitat for Humanity is an organization destined to bring about positive change around the globe.

"If we work together, we are bound to succeed," he said.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor agreed, describing Habitat for Humanity as a force for change in the world.

"My heart is full from being out on the build site," he said. "I wish every Georgian could be here to feel the excitement."

Taylor offered his continued support of providing decent, safe, affordable housing for all residents of the peach state, something he said all Georgians deserve.

At the Donor Recognition Dinner Wednesday night sponsored by Valdosta State University, the focus was on the project's many sponsors, those businesses, churches, civic organizations and individuals who made the build possible.

"Thanks to the donors, these ... dream homes are becoming a reality," said Valdosta Mayor James H. Rainwater.

Ralph Jackson, executive director of Valdosta-Lowndes County Habitat for Humanity, hopes the support of these sponsors will continue through the long haul. As a 21st Century Challenge participant, Valdosta's goal is to eliminate substandard housing by the year 2020. This challenge is Habitat for Humanity International's method of encouraging communities to work to completely eradicate poverty housing.

"We'll have to build 50 to 60 houses a year in Valdosta to reach this goal," Jackson said. "It took great political courage for our city to accept this challenge and make the commitment. The Jimmy Carter Work Project is the catalyst for this challenge."

Rainwater assured all those in attendance that Valdosta will succeed in eliminating substandard housing.

"Our city knows about winning and about teamwork," he added.

This will happen, Millard Fuller, president and founder of Habitat for Humanity International, said, if all involved are up for the long haul.

"This is a very difficult undertaking," he said. "The Bible says with God all things are possible. It does not say that with God all things are easy."

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call 244-3400, ext. 255.

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