Give Her Shelter

updated 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN THE PAST SIX MONTHS, FORMER President Jimmy Carter has helped curb the buildup of nuclear arms in North Korea and played a crucial part in returning exiled leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti. But in August, Carter, 70, put his international clientele on hold. After all, none of them ever helped him build a tree house.

And Annie Mae Rhodes did. For 22 years, Rhodes, now 77, was the Carter family housekeeper and cook, supplying Jimmy and his three younger siblings with her signature sweet-potato pie and peanut bread. So when the tiny Albany, Ga., house she shared with her brother Clyde "Junior" Ross, 60—wheelchair-bound following a 1990 stroke—was destroyed when the Flint River flooded last July, Rhodes discovered she had a powerful friend.

After the flood, Rhodes found "every stick of furniture, every piece of clothing, every memory gone"—except for a tattered copy of 1977's The Carter Family Favorites, a cookbook that she helped Carter's mother, Miss Lillian, and his wife, Rosalynn, compile. When her dog Spicy died a few weeks later, Rhodes—widowed twice, with no children, and now homeless—was left with only her $416-a-month social security check. "That's when it came down on me," she says. "I lost everything. I hollered and cried, then prayed to the Lord to help me."

A Red Cross worker sent word to Carter, who notified Habitat for Humanity International, the nonprofit home-building organization for which the Carters have been high-profile volunteers. Habitat agreed to give Rhodes priority in its campaign to build 20 houses for local flood victims. "She gave so much to me and my family that we welcomed the opportunity to give something back," says Carter, who traveled with Rosalynn to Albany to drive nails and lend moral support to Rhodes, who, despite arthritis, hung Sheetrock and hauled wood alongside the Habitat volunteers. The three-bedroom house isn't free. Like other Habitat owners, Rhodes has made a down payment ($500) and must pay off her $30,000 interest-free loan.

What is free are the twilights she can savor on her new front porch. And that isn't all that Rhodes is enjoying. "I've been feeling good all over since Jimmy and the Lord answered my prayers," she beams. "They took away the heaviness and replaced it with love."

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