During the darkest days of the Great Depression, the Carter family never turned away any of the strangers, sometimes entire families, who showed up at their home in Plains, Ga., asking for food or water. A young Jimmy Carter had lengthy conversations with the unemployed travelers as they gratefully devoured leftover fried chicken and sandwiches.
“The next time we had some of the vagrant visitors, Mama asked why they had stopped at our house and not the others,” Carter recalls. “After some hesitation, one of them said, ‘Ma’am, we have a set of symbols that we use, to show the attitude of each family along the road. The post on your mailbox is marked to say that you don’t turn people away or mistreat us.’ After they were gone, we went out and found some unobtrusive scratches; Mama told us not to change them.”
Seven decades later, former President Jimmy Carter remains a marked man. The generosity of his mother, who once gained permission for her son to give lemonade to the men working on a chain gang, and the compassion of his father, a brilliant farmer who quietly aided countless neighbors, were indelibly etched into his character, creating a lifelong passion to help others. Carter, 79, is now recognized worldwide for his dogged determination to bring basic human rights to those who are unable to secure them for themselves.
“He has a tremendous desire to make his life count,” says Millard Fuller, founder and president of Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit agency that builds houses for the poor. “He has a desire to reach out and make a difference in the world and elevate the human condition, whether it’s dealing with riverblindness (an African disease caused by a parasitic worm), building 150 houses in Mexico or eradicating the Guinea worm. He wants to use his time well to make a difference.”
The nation’s 39th president and former Georgia governor earned the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize and has achieved folk-hero status in some of the world’s poorest countries for his tireless work spearheaded through the Carter Center, a non-profit organization headquartered at Atlanta’s Emory University. Truly a citizen of the world, he is widely considered to be the best former president in recent memory for his humanitarian efforts. Twenty-three years after he left the White House, Carter is doing some of the most important work of his life.
“Lately it’s been popular for the former presidents to go into the lecture circuit and make a lot of money, and I don’t object to that, but it doesn’t appeal to me,” Carter says. “We searched around for a new role for a former president to play, and that is basically trying to promote peace, freedom, democracy and human rights, and alleviate suffering in the poorest countries in the world. It’s exciting to see how much they need our help, and respond to it and appreciate it.”
The Carter Center, which he established in 1982 with his wife, Rosalynn, has helped improve life for people in more than 65 countries. He has helped mediate disputes in Bosnia, Ethiopia, Haiti, North Korea, and Sudan, and has monitored 44 elections—sometimes putting his own life in harm’s way—in 22 countries, including the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Zambia. In July, Carter will monitor an election in Indonesia.
“It wasn’t a matter of taking a hard road instead of an easy road,” he says of his work. “The things that we do now, I don’t consider them to be a sacrifice at all. Although we go to poor countries and see people suffering from horrible diseases, it’s a blessing for us to participate in improving their lives in some way.”
Eradicating the Guinea worm
In 1986, the Carter Center discovered that 3.5 million people in 23,000 African villages were suffering from Guinea worm disease, a painful and crippling disease that is spread through parasite-contaminated water. Thanks to the Carters’ efforts, the Guinea worm, which has been around since biblical times, is close to being eradicated through educational programs, which will make it the first parasitic disease to be eradicated. “We’ve cut it down to 31,000 (cases), a 99 percent reduction. Now we know where every single one of those people live.”
Last month, he and Rosalynn traveled to the West African countries of Ghana, Mali and Togo, to help eliminate the last 1 percent of the Guinea worm disease remaining in the world. “It was unpredictable and adventurous and challenging and enjoyable and gratifying,” Carter says of the trip. “We are dealing with some of the most poverty-stricken and abandoned people in the world, but also some of the most intellectual and hard-working people, with good family values, who are looking for a better life.”
Carter says the sense of community found in remote African villages reminds him of the spirit he’s experienced in Plains. “The more afflicted a community is with a disease like the Guinea worm, the more they help each other,” he says. “That used to be the case when I was in Plains. We used to have polio epidemics and hookworm plagues that would permeate every family in Plains. That is what brought the people in Plains together. If someone was sick, everybody knew about it and tried to figure out, ‘What can I do to help them? We are all in the same boat.’”
The Carters, who travel with their work about one-third of the year, do not receive any pay for their efforts. “He is not interested in wealth, he is not interested in doing things for status,” says Terrence Adamson, Carter’s close friend. “I think his sense of self and values were to a great degree shaped from being from rural southwest Georgia, the value of families and being interested in people for people’s sake, rather than for status.”
As they’ve done for the last 20 years, the Carters will dedicate one week this year to building houses for Habitat for Humanity. “He will turn 80 on Oct. 1 and he’ll help build 15 houses that month in Mexico and he’s scheduled to build in Michigan in June 2005,” Fuller says.
The Carters, now the grandparents of 11, still live in the same ranch-style home in Plains (pop. 637) that they’ve owned for 43 years. The home is on land owned by the Carter family since 1833. He still teaches Sunday School at the Maranatha Baptist Church. “It’s a peaceful place,” he says of his hometown. “Nowadays, with modern communication and transportation, it’s just as accessible to our projects as it would be if I were in Atlanta or Washington. There is no handicap with living in Plains and a lot of advantages.
“It’s always been like a haven for me and Rosalynn. When I left the Navy in 1953, we went straight back to Plains. When we left the governor’s mansion, we went straight back to Plains. When we left the White House in 1981, we went straight back to Plains.”
Carter describes this time in his life as “the best of all, I think.” He says, “A lot of the White House years were great, but the time since we left the White House has been the most interesting and the most diverse. I don’t have any fixed agenda. Almost every day, Rosalynn and I have an unlimited menu and we can choose from that menu the things we find challenging and interesting.
“We still have time in between our work with the Carter Center to do some of the things that we didn’t have time to do when I was in the Navy, or trying to earn a living to support my family, or serving as governor or president. We have taken up downhill skiing and fly-fishing. We play tennis a lot and we’ve become bird watchers, and I’ve taken up painting and written 18 books. We can do things that we couldn’t do before. It’s a very good life.”