Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood teamed up with former President Jimmy Carter, his wife Rosalynn and Habitat for Humanity to build 21 new homes in Nashville last week. The impressive feat featured a number of other country stars and pro athletes helping local families bring their dreams alive — and it also highlighted a glaring need in the process.
Located just outside of downtown Music City, the homebuilding site hosted its esteemed partners plus around 500 volunteers from all over the country — and according to Brooks, the weeklong event was an expression of Nashville’s community spirit.
“It’s cool to see people coming into this town, they’re coming into the city of love,” said the Country Music Hall of Famer during a press conference as building got underway, seated alongside his wife, the Carters and representatives of Habitat for Humanity. “Of all the Habitat builds we’ve been fortunate to be on, this is our favorite one already.”
With a hive of activity buzzing behind them, Brooks and Yearwood reflected on the 10 Habitat events they’ve been a part of in the past — and noted that Habitat for Humanity is a different kind of endeavor. The famous pair are involved in all kinds of charity work, but Habitat’s motto is “A hand up, not a hand out,” and that’s something that resonates with Yearwood, especially.
“For me theres all sorts of ways to give back, and they’re all good,” she explained. “Writing a check is good, and signing a T-shirt that goes for auction is good. But showing up and getting your hands dirty, and building along side the person who’s gonna live in that house, to get to have that kind of community? … There’s something about that. … It lifts our spirits to be a part of something for someone else.”
Habitat for Humanity does not give away houses, President Carter added. Each family pays the full price for their home and gets a mortgage just like any other homebuyer. The volunteers just pledge their time and expertise to build the home — and the new homeowners are required to put in over 100 hours of their own labor, as well. It’s been 36 years since President Carter and Rosalynn did their first Habitat for Humanity build, and in the time since, Habitat has helped put 22 million people into new or improved homes. The Carters noted that along the way they’ve worked with over 100,000 volunteers, but Brooks and Yearwood are some of their favorites.
“Garth and Trisha are our two best volunteers,” President Carter said, joking that his country star friends do all the heavy lifting, so he and Rosalynn don’t have to. “Not only do they work all day, they stay at the end of the day and clean up the site — that’s not usual superstar behavior. When we found that out we were like, ‘Okay, these are folks we’d love to partner with long term.'”
That partnership started in New Orleans a few years after Hurricane Katrina. Brooks and Yearwood didn’t know they were getting themselves into at the time, she says.
“We went to do some photo [opportunities] and interviews, we were gonna be there an hour I think, and we saw the President and Ms. Rosalynn building – I mean really building – this house, and we picked up a hammer and stayed all day,” she explained. “We fell in love with Habitat that day, and I’m a Georgia girl, so I’ve been in love with this couple for a long time anyway, but we just fell in love with their work ethic and the kind of people they are. For us, they are an example of the kind of human being to be, the kind of husband and wife to be, the kind of Christian to be, everything.”
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Getting to work after the Monday morning press conference, Yearwood went straight back to the task of putting up interior walls, while Brooks eagerly slogged through the muddy site helping build and erect rafters. The pair joined their home’s future owner and a team of others when the structure was just a bare concrete slab, and by the end of the week had it ready for finishing work — they even got the siding up, they joked. Not to be outdone, Mr. and Mrs. Carter could be seen right next door, assembling and painting decorative roof supports despite the fact Mr. Carter had taken a nasty fall two days before.
Brooks and Yearwood weren’t the only celebrities helping out, however. Country hit maker Eric Paslay grabbed a hard hat and joined in, and so did Nashville Predators captain Roman Josi. Meanwhile, Grand Ole Opry favorites like Chuck Mead (formerly of the honky tonk band BR549) performed during daily lunch breaks.
To be sure, each one of those volunteers was proud to be a part of helping individual Nashville families, but they were also there to help highlight a broader problem facing the whole nation.
“This city is experiencing incredible growth, which is wonderfully exciting, but there is a cost to that,” Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford explained. “Nashville has been identified among the Top 5 U.S. cities on the verge of a housing crisis, and I would say our whole country is in an affordability crisis right now.”
Nearly 39 million households are “severly cost burdened” by their housing sitution, Reckford went on, and more than 18 million spend over 50 percent of their income on rent or mortgage payments. They then have to make difficult trade offs and go without other necessities, and Habitat is working to encourage leaders in addressing that problem.
“At Habitat for Humanity we believe that attainable, affordable housing is foundational for community development, and we know that housing has such a strong correlation on health outcomes, educational outcomes and livelihoods,” Reckford said. “So in many ways it’s a prerequisite for the kind of lives all of us want to be able to lead.”
At a wrap up ceremony held at the Grand Ole Opry Friday, after all the work had been finished, one couple who’s home had just been built put that mission into focus. Erica and Neil met after Erica’s first husband — an aspiring artist in Nashville — died suddenly from a freak heart attack. She and her late husband had a young child, plus she was pregnant at the time, and the family lost its stability in the tragedy’s wake. Erica and the kids moved five times in two years, and even after she met and married Neil — who stepped up into the role of loving father right away — the family was still struggling. Now, with their Habitat for Humanity home, they look forward to “thriving for generations to come.”
With Erica recounting her redemption story and Neil tearfully thanking each of their new home’s builders by name — including Brooks and Yearwood — he ended with a special message for the Carters. “Thank you for being on site, and showing us what it means to love God and love others,” he said to loud applause.
Earlier in the night, Brooks had mentioned that these Habitat builds are all about “Presidents acting like regular people, and regular people acting like Presidents,” and Neil’s speech seemed to prove the point. After “Family Tree” singer and rising star Caylee Hammack delivered a short acoustic set of three tunes — often with empowering messages like the one in “Forged in the Fire,” which tells the story of a house fire that nearly derailed her career — it was revealed that next year’s Jimmy Carter Work Project will take place in the Dominican Republic, and that there’s still more work to be done in Nashville. The community raised enough money to build 38 more homes just like the 21 Brooks and Yearwood helped put up last week, and after a humble thank you to the volunteers, the words Mr. Carter had spoken at Monday’s press conference rang especially true.
“Rosalyn and I have done this 35 times before this year, and we’ve always gotten more out of it than we put into it,” he said. “We’ve been to a lot of countries in the world and been all over the United States, and we have enjoyed it. I don’t think we’ve ever left a site without tears in our eyes at least some time during the week.”