Two men key to landing Carter project in Mishawaka

Joseph Dits South Bend Tribune
South Bend Tribune

MISHAWAKA — Retired architect LeRoy Troyer walks a few steps from the workbench where his friend, 93-year-old Jimmy Carter, is building a porch railing all week. At 80, Troyer is lucky to stand, talk and hold things, though not very tightly, after a stroke last September.

For 33 years, he’d always been the former president’s house boss on the week-long Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project, always physical. He’s pitching in as he can now and, for a few minutes, telling tales of a Habitat for Humanity project that has built or fixed up 4,290 houses in 14 countries.

“A lot of other things will come out of this,” he promises, having started Habitat affiliates in St. Joseph and Elkhart counties and served on the charity’s international board.

Local Habitat CEO Jim Williams had come straight to Troyer with the idea of attracting the Carter Work Project, knowing Troyer’s influence was key.

Troyer replied, “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

For decades, the project has already changed the lives of both Troyer and Mayor Dave Wood. Both men played key roles in landing the project in this city, drawing millions of dollars of donations, celebrities, hundreds of volunteers and 23 new houses.

Across the street, Wood has a contractor’s pencil stuck between his hard hat and his ear. He takes a moment out of his expeditious pace, installing windows, cutting lumber, nailing — skills he’d learned on Habitat for Humanity projects starting in 1995, then used to build his family’s own house.

“I’m having a blast,” he says, toiling Monday through Friday. “This is the most fun I can have in a life. My favorite part is framing. … Everything else that goes in it depends on that.”

Under his guidance, the city has gone beyond what it needed to set the stage for the project. The city has absorbed the cost of building the new streets, curbs, sidewalks and alleys and extending lines for city electric, water and sewer services. Normally, the developer of a new subdivision would pay for this.

“Mathematically,” Wood says, that would have added to the cost of each home and “defeated the purpose of affordable housing.”

The future homeowners here will pay no-interest mortgages that average $550 to $600 per month, Williams says.

Wood says the city also cleared a field south of the work site, cutting grass for huge meal tents and parking and laying mulch on which to walk since Habitat “had other things to focus on.” He says the city also bought an all-terrain cart and added a stretcher to the back to pick up anyone who needs medical help during the work blitz. The cart can be used later in the city parks, Wood says.

Williams counts the city among Habitat’s top sponsors — those that have provided at least $500,000 in cash or in-kind donations. That includes some federal housing assistance the city passed along. The city, Wood said, also secured donations from vendors and supporters.

“We want this to be the best build out of the 35 (Carter projects),” Wood says.

Jimmy Carter said at Monday’s news conference that this was one of the best prepared and organized of the Carter Work Projects.

This is personal for Wood.

In 1995, he and his wife, Jaimi, had just graduated from college and couldn’t afford to buy a house. Local homebuilder Art Moser, who’d served on Habitat’s board, suggested he could help them build their own. Because Wood had no experience with a hammer, he followed Moser onto a local Habitat build site. It turned into a passion as Wood became a crew leader for Carter Work Projects in the Philippines (1999), South Africa (2002) and Benton Harbor (2005), picking up an ethic from both Troyer and Carter.

He now talks about the way the homes strengthen and stabilize families, saying, “That’s God’s work.”

After Wood became mayor in 2010, Mishawaka eagerly opened up vacant city-owned lots for Habitat homes. The charity has since built roughly 40 homes in the city, all before the current project of 23 homes.

City staff are among the 125 volunteers the city lined up to put in at least a day on the job, working on two houses alongside singers Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. One of the houses will belong to 26-year-old Raven Boston, a former city intern who now works full time in the city clerk’s office while raising two sons, ages 2 and 3.

“We felt very special knowing her,” Wood says. “Our employees could come together and build a house for someone who means a lot to us.”

Troyer’s impact

Troyer grew up in an Amish family in Middlebury, graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1971, then immediately started an architectural firm. He has since sold The Troyer Group in Mishawaka but can’t get away from its presence. When he had the stroke, his son, family physician Dr. Don Troyer, flew with him in a chopper to the Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago that his firm had designed in the 1980s.

Last Friday, Troyer was discharged from physical therapy, saying faith and prayer “is a great healer.” Carter, at Sunday’s opening ceremonies, described regular emails from Troyer that always refer to God or Jesus Christ.

The two stayed up until midnight on a house build in Georgia in 1988, setting blocks and installing grab bars for a disabled woman. There hadn’t been plans to make the house accessible. Around 2005, he says, the Carter projects started to build homes with wide doors and zero entry (no front steps), as seen in the new Mishawaka houses.

“Many of the people that have housing needs have some disability,” he says.

In Carter’s other peace efforts, he got Troyer to come to a tense Nicaragua in the early 1990s to monitor elections, where the U.S. ambassador advised the group: “Here’s my phone number. Put it in your shoe in case you get kidnapped.”

Habitat ousted founder Millard Fuller in 2005 over allegations of sexual harassment, though its board eventually concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate charges. Rather than join the controversy, Troyer chose to “focus on the right thing.” He continued to serve Habitat and to chair the board of the new housing charity that Fuller had formed.

Fuller, who has since died, called on Troyer to join a four-person delegation to North Korea, trying to persuade the country’s construction and engineering officials to allow them to build energy-efficient houses. They’d hoped it would build relations with the U.S., too. But the North Koreans wouldn’t grant visas.

“They didn’t keep their word,” he says.

Then there’s the woman who called Fuller about his book, “No More Shacks,” seeking advice on how to trim her portly figure. After a few words, the woman said, “I thought it said, ‘No More Snacks.’”

In turn, Fuller invited the Jewish woman to join Habitat, a Christian charity, for a project in Atlanta. She ended up on Troyer’s work crew, building a home for a mother who’d been disabled by a bullet when she was 4. Troyer watched the new volunteer “cry like a baby; she was so touched by the family.”

Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood trims a barrier shield Tuesday at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Mishawaka, where he’s working all week.
LeRoy Troyer, left, works with Jimmy Carter, center, and Lowell Priser. Hundreds of Habitat for Humanity volunteers are helping at the Carter Work Project in Mishawaka.