On a hot, sunny day in June 1992, former President Jimmy Carter taught Sonia Street how to hold a hammer. Working with Habitat for Humanity, he was helping to build a deck for Sonia’s new house, a corner store being renovated in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
“He smacked my hand and said, ‘You don’t hold a hammer like that,’ ” Street recalled, more than three decades later, from her living room. A blue-painted wall — which Carter had helped frame — is decorated with photographs of her with the former president, who recently announced that he had entered home hospice care in Plains, Georgia.
Meeting the 39th president and becoming a first-time homeowner marked a turning point in Street’s life. She and her three daughters moved out of Gilmor Homes, a public housing project in West Baltimore. She conquered her fear of flying and joined Carter at Habitat for Humanity building projects in South Korea, Thailand and other locations around the world. She gained a lifelong mentor who continues to inspire her to give back.
“I’d still probably be living in the projects, trying to make ends meet,” said the 61-year-old retired preschool teacher and janitor. “I’m grateful I did get to meet him because he made a big impact in my life and the community around here.”
In 1976, when Carter defeated Republican incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency, Street was still in middle school. She remembers casting a ballot for Carter during her school’s mock election, but never imagined she would one day meet the peanut farmer-turned-politician, let alone be on a first-name basis with him.
After his one-term presidency, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, traveled the globe, working on projects for Habitat for Humanity. They built, renovated or repaired nearly 4,400 homes alongside 104,000 volunteers in 14 countries, according to the organization. Twice the couple came to Baltimore to help build and renovate homes, said Gregg Mitchell, chief advancement officer for Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake. In 2010, they also spent time working on a project in Annapolis that led to the revitalization of Clay Street, a historically Black neighborhood, he said.
The first visit, in 1992, was for the kickoff of the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity campaign to build homes and rehabilitate vacant properties. Initially, the goal was 100 homes, though Carter’s involvement helped draw more donations and volunteers, tripling the number of houses the organization ultimately finished, Mitchell said.
“When he went to places, he really generated visibility, recognition, volunteer participation, support and enthusiasm for the work. … The really magical thing was he really connected with people in the community,” Mitchell said.
When Street was terrified to face the news cameras that descended on her neighborhood for the presidential visit, Rosalynn held her hand. Jimmy insisted that Street call him by his first name.
“My name is Jimmy and your name is Sonia and we’ll leave it at that,” Street remembers the former president saying.
Later, Street remarked that since Carter got to see her house, could she go to see his house? He agreed and invited her to visit his home in Plains, which the Carters built in 1961. A few years after their initial meeting, Street traveled to Plains for a Habitat for Humanity work day. There she met the Carters’ son and daughter-in-law and learned that peanuts grew underground. Street saw Carter several more times through the years at different project sites for the organization, she said.
Then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke was also in attendance that hot day in June 1992. Schmoke had spoken with Carter a handful of times prior, when he worked as a junior domestic policy staffer in the Carter administration in 1977 and 1978. The mayor tried to engage the former president in a nostalgic conversation about his time in the White House. Others tried to discuss housing policy with Carter, but he had other priorities.
“He came to work and not to talk. … He picked up a hammer and went in there and started to renovate a home,” Schmoke said of his fellow Democrat.
While some might show up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a staged photo before leaving, the Carters were hands-on volunteers actively engaged with construction labor, according to Mitchell. The same was true when the Carters came back to Baltimore in 2010 to work on houses on Jefferson Street in East Baltimore.
Over the last 40 years, Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake has completed 780 homes across 19 neighborhoods in Baltimore City, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County, Mitchell said. The organization provides education and training on home ownership and financial literacy and sells houses with no-interest mortgage loans to qualified low-to-moderate-income families.
Part of the nonprofit’s mission is to help close a minority homeownership gap, he said. Nearly 75% of white households own their homes, compared to about 45% of Black households, census figures show. Redlining, the Great Recession, gentrification and investor purchases are contributing to and worsening the racial disparities in homeownership, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a national think tank.
Street said having her own home and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity transformed her life. “I ain’t gotta wonder about the slum landlords not coming in and fixing up nothing for me. I can do it myself now.”
Growing up, Street was known by her nickname “Boogie.” These days she’s also called “The Jimmy Carter Girl,” and she likes to joke that she’s Carter’s “second wife.” She plans to paint a sign across the front awning, designating it as “The Jimmy Carter House.” Street hopes the side of her two-story home can one day feature a mural of her friend, the former president.
News of his declining health has hit Street hard. She said she’s been praying every night for his recovery.
“He’s a father figure, he’s a loving person,” she said. “It just hurts me. I tear up every time I talk about him. I know he’s 98, but I ain’t imagine that he would leave us like this.”