Carter hammering for Habitat

Ex-president brings star power to town for housing project

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Melo Lawson may wind up with the most famous house in north Minneapolis, thanks to a high-powered work crew that descended on her front yard Wednesday.

There was former President Jimmy Carter, standing between two sawhorses, drilling holes into lumber. His former vice president, Walter Mondale, pounded siding panels onto the house -- as did Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak wielded a hammer and drill, along with a dozen other volunteers.

The home makeover was part of the annual Carter Work Project for Habitat for Humanity, a weeklong rehabbing tour hosted by the Twin Cities this year for the first time. With more than 40 photographers and journalists documenting the event -- perched on a scaffold just next to Lawson's sidewalk -- the job was designed to spotlight the need for affordable housing and the former president who helped make Habitat famous.

With human rights a centerpiece of his long career, Carter said he views affordable housing as a basic human right.

"Although we've given almost 2 million people [worldwide] homes, there are still a billion people who need them,'' Carter said at a news conference Wednesday.

He assured the crowd that he was in good health after "a two-day vacation in a Cleveland hospital'' last week. He said he had a one-day virus.

Carter, 86, and his wife, Rosalynn, arrived at the north Minneapolis worksite about 8:30 a.m. Before picking up any tools, the Carters visited each of the 12 houses being worked on in the Hawthorne neighborhood, posing for photos with volunteers and excited homeowners.

After traveling the world for previous Work Project weeks, Carter called the Hawthorne neighborhood "the nicest neighborhood I ever worked in.''

Lawson's is among 26 Minnesota families that will see their houses built or rehabbed thanks to the Carter Work Project. An immigrant from Togo, she came to Minnesota in 2006. She was thrilled just to be chosen to receive a Habitat home. Having a former president help to remodel it was mind-boggling.

"I feel like I'm in a dream,'' she said. "When I was studying English, I wrote a paper on Jimmy Carter. I never imagined I'd meet him!''

Lawson, 42, said she's been living in a two-bedroom apartment with her four children while working as a tutor and studying child development at a community college. Her husband will be moving here from Togo at the end of the month, she said, so the timing couldn't be better.

"Now I'll have my own spot [in the house],'' she said. "I can do homework. I'll have peace of mind.''

Carter praised the work of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity in restoring neighborhoods, not just individual homes. He also had high praise for the glorious autumn weather, after spending several days in cities that were either cold or rainy.

"Fritz [Mondale] always said, 'Come to Minnesota for the weather,''' he joked.

Carter will spend Thursday in St. Paul's Payne-Phalen neighborhood, injecting his celebrity power to a cause he has embraced for nearly 30 years. Rosalynn had to leave town Wednesday.

Even though the visit was brief, Mondale said, Carter's presence in the Hawthorne neighborhood will be remembered.

"The house that we worked on will always be remembered as the house the president built,'' Mondale said.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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