VALDOSTA – After the deeply saddening news of former U.S. First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s passing earlier this week, a Valdosta resident recalled her unyielding service to South Georgia.
Ralph Jackson served as the first executive director for the Valdosta-Lowndes County Habitat for Humanity. He worked alongside former President Jimmy Carter and his wife through the organization for about 20 years during his service career in the global non-profit organization.
His first recollection of the Carters was a week-long blitz building initiative called the Jimmy Carter Work Project – which was later renamed the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project and now the Carter Work Project. Jackson worked as the executive director and the project manager at the time the event was held in Valdosta in 2003.
Jackson told the Valdosta Daily Times Tuesday morning that between 800 to 1,000 volunteers traveled from all over the world to assist in the week-long project.
Twenty-seven houses were constructed from June 7 to 13, one of which was worked on by the Carters and Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller. Two other events were also held in Anniston, Ala., and LaGrange, Ga., that week.
Jackson said it was a great honor for Valdosta to be selected for the event due to only one project being held each year. He described the week similar to the Super Bowl but for Habitat for Humanity.
“They were wonderful people, just really dedicated, kind, warm and just great people. They really believed in it and that was the key,” Jackson said.
Rosalynn was always near her husband and remained an active force throughout the week. She would be seen working on the house with a hammer with their team.
“They were just like [other] volunteers. They worked and sweated just like everyone else. That was kind of the amazing part about it, to all of us, that they just didn’t sit around and say hello to people,” he said. “That’s the beauty of Habitat. Jimmy and Rosalynn, they supercharged it when they came onboard.”
Jackson said the atmosphere of the week was magical and charged up due to the number of volunteers that were drawn from South Korea, New Zealand and across the nation to the Valdosta area. The impact of the Carter Work Project shined a light and attention on the need for affordable housing in the county.
He admired how they navigated their 77-year marriage and life after exiting the White House. He recognized the support and positive influence that Rosalynn was for Jimmy Carter. He said he was shocked to hear of Rosalynn’s death on Sunday, Nov. 19. She had just entered hospice care two days before her death. She was 96.
“I was super shocked. It showed up on my wife’s phone. I didn’t expect it,” Jackson said. “They were very special people.”
The last time Jackson saw and spoke to the Carters was in 2019 when he attended a church service in Plains, Georgia.
“She was definitely a force in his life and he respected her. She kept him on the path. She is what I would call a steel magnolia,” he said. “She was a guiding light for him through all of it.”
Rosalynn Carter returned to Valdosta in 2014 while campaigning for her grandson, Jason Carter, who was a Democratic candidate for Georgia governor. She spoke to a crowd in front of the Historic Lowndes County Courthouse.
Jimmy Carter, 99, has been in hospice care since February. The Carters lived most of their lives in Plains, Ga., where they met as children.