‘They’re just angels walking among us’

Jimmy Carter, America’s oldest living president, entered hospice care this past February, which sadly meant that he and his 96-year-old wife, Rosalynn Carter, could not be present at Habitat for Humanity’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Charlotte, N.C., this week. Since 1984, the Carters have worked alongside more than 104,000 volunteers in 14 countries to build, renovate, and repair 4,390 homes, and among those longtime volunteers have been another famous power couple, their friends Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. This week, the country superstars are carrying the torch — or more literally, the hammer — to help build 27 new single-family Charlotte homes for people in need of affordable housing.

President Carter always hated to sit out a Habitat project — for example, in 2019, after falling at his Georgia home, suffering a black eye, and requiring 14 stitches, he still showed up with a swollen eye and bandaged forehead to that year’s Nashville build and got straight to work. Sitting with Brooks and Yearwood at the Meadows at Plato Price, the site of this week’s build, Habitat for Humanity CEO John Reckford tells Yahoo Entertainment that the Carters’ absence in North Carolina is “bittersweet. … Obviously, they have retired from public life and are very much in our thoughts. But I think more than anything, [President Carter] would want to see the work continue.”

Reckford says the 39th president watched a remote live-stream of Charlotte’s 2023 opening ceremonies, which took place Oct. 1 on his milestone 99th birthday, and Brooks recalls with a grin that “everybody got to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him, so it was cool.” Brooks then reveals that President Carter made it clear what his one birthday wish was.

“He personally sent me a letter. He said what he wanted for his 99th birthday was to build [27] homes in Charlotte,” Brooks says, adding with a laugh, “So, we got this together really quick!” More seriously, Brooks states, “I can tell you this. If the man does have a birthday wish, this is what it’d be: Treating every human with equality and making sure every human has the basic human right of a roof over his or her head.”

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter with Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks during the 2018 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Indiana. (Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros) (Jason Asteros)

Brooks and Yearwood first got involved with Habitat for Humanity in 2007, when, as Yearwood chucklingly recalls, they went down to New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina “to do a photo opp and maybe hold a hammer and look like we were building. But we met the Carters there and they were really building, and we thought, ‘This is what we want to do.’” After working all day and having “the best time,” a friendship was forged between the two couples, and Yearwood and her husband have “been on almost every Carter build since. It’s been, for us, one of the things that we look forward to every year.”

The country stars laugh and smile recalling their many fond memories of working for Habitat alongside the Carters. For instance, there was that time when it started to rain at a Dallas site, and while most of the volunteers ducked inside houses for shelter, Jimmy and Rosalynn just “put on trash bags” kept on working, braving the elements. Or that time in Winnipeg when President Carter suffered a minor dizzy spell from “working too hard” and was whisked off to a nearby hospital out of an abundance of caution right before that build’s opening ceremony — only to call Brooks “from the car a little bit grumpy” about missing out and ordering everyone to get back to work. But they say that the Carters aren’t just role models because of their work ethic. Brooks and Yearwood, who first became friends in 1987 and have been married since 2005, also deeply admire Jimmy and Rosalynn for their incredible, 76-year marriage.

Garth Brooks, Rosalynn Carter, Trisha Yearwood, and President Jimmy Carter attend the 53rd annual ASCAP Country Music Awards in 2015. (John Shearer/Getty Images)

Garth Brooks, Rosalynn Carter, Trisha Yearwood, and President Jimmy Carter attend the 53rd annual ASCAP Country Music Awards in 2015. (John Shearer/Getty Images) (John Shearer via Getty Images)

“The thing with President Carter and Ms. Rosalynn for me is just how they complete one another,” Brooks gushes. “I’ve got to tell you, me and Ms. Yearwood sit here and we have our times — we argue and get in these really deep discussions. Can you imagine being the president of the United States as your job? And yet they seem to come out on the other side even more in love with each other than going in. That’s impossible, for one. And then it’s cool to see that they’re just regular people. They’re just angels walking among us, but they’re regular people because we build beside them every year. … They work great together, but then sometimes they don’t agree on anything! And it’s fun to get to see both sides.

“But the main thing throughout all that, no doubt whatsoever, he is a loving and compassionate man and she is a strong and courageous woman, together,” Brooks sums up. “That’s what a true power couple is. It’s just a couple that loves one another.”

“It’s 76 years of marriage this year. … We will be, I don’t know, a hundred-and-how-old when we get to 76 years!” says Yearwood, 59, giggling next to her 61-year-old husband. “It is an example of just how to be. What I see when I see the two of them is love. I see laughter. I see mutual respect. And I love how when people are always focused on President Carter, how he shines a spotlight on [Rosalynn] and talks about all of the initiatives that she’s done all over the world. She’s an advocate for mental health. She’s also helped in other countries — she was very instrumental in [aiding] the Guinea Worm [Disease] problem. You can look her up and see that she has done so many things. And [Jimmy is] the first guy to tell you all the things that Rosalynn has done.”

“I think one of our favorite memories was we were actually here when they changed the name from the Jimmy Carter Work Project to the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project,” Brooks recalls with a smile. “I thought that said volumes.”

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter at a Valentine's Day fundraiser in 1976. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter at a Valentine’s Day fundraiser in 1976. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images) (Rick Diamond via Getty Images)

Now that the Carters have stepped away from the spotlight after decades of tireless service, rumors have circulated that Brooks and Years might step in as their official replacement ambassadors for Habitat for Humanity. But Yearwood says, “We’re not trying to fill impossible shoes.” Brooks shakes his head and humbly nominates Jimmy and Rosalynn’s son and daughter-in-law, Chip and Becky Carter, for the ambassador roles, saying, “Those two hold up everything about Habitat that we can possibly imagine; they’ll outwork anybody.” But then Brooks stresses, “There’s no replacing President Carter.”

‘[Jimmy Carter] has had a wonderful legacy in his work with Habitat, which has always been about bringing people together,” says Reckford. “The Carter Build in South Africa was the first mixed-race community built after apartheid, and we had leaders from across Africa come and participate. Habitat was part of the peace accords in Northern Ireland, where we had Protestants and Catholics come together and build as part of the peace process. We’ve done peace building all over the world and here in the U.S., when people come out and serve in their community. And President Carter is such a shining example of that. [The Carters] focus on what they have in common [with others], as opposed to what separates them. And so, I think service can really be the antidote to the polarization we see in our communities — not just with Habitat, but if people come out in their communities and they can build homes, they can build communities and hope.”

“We are carrying on the tradition of working really hard and always having something to do,” says Yearwood, as she and Brooks wrap their Yahoo interview and prepare to rejoin Charlotte’s other volunteers on site. “Except for this moment, at which President Carter right now would be saying” ‘Get back to work!’”

Habitat for Humanity’s 37th Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project is taking place Oct. 1 through 6 at Habitat Charlotte Region’s large-scale affordable housing neighborhood, the Meadows at Plato Price. The site is named after the Plato Price School, which closed in the ‘60s when desegregation took hold of the once-thriving and historically significant African-American neighborhood of West Charlotte. The school’s land remained vacant until the city of Charlotte donated it to Habitat Charlotte Region in 2019, and building commenced, in September 2021. Once the project is fully completed in early 2025, it will feature 39 new homes.

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