Jimmy Carter sits on the arm of his chair, leaning forward, eager to make eye-contact with the 250 temporary citizens attending his town hall meeting in Crested Butte. The man the Secret Service calls "Deacon" wears bluejeans, a tattersall shirt and a bolo tie, and he speaks in a voice accustomed to reaching a crowd without a microphone.
The "townies" tonight are a mix of supporters contributing $3000 a head to participate in the weekend, ski bums working at the Marriott or as instructors on the slopes of Crested Butte, and a couple handfuls of inner-city students who are among the direct beneficiaries of FutureForce, one of many projects initiated by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter over the past 18 years.
While most people celebrate President's Day with a long weekend getaway, the Carters celebrate the holiday in presidential style, mingling with supporters, fielding questions on global conflicts and burgeoning democracies, and inspiring everyone they encounter with down-to-earth altruism and a contagious generosity of spirit.
Nevertheless, the Carters are never happier than when they "go to work," hitting the slopes with the students, away from the admiring crowds that gather whenever they pull off their ski goggles. The students light up on their first morning on the slopes, exclaiming "Mr. President!" when the Carters drop by the first lesson.
The presence of the Carters is encouragement enough, and Jimmy coaxes the students to follow him away from the ski school area over to the bunny slopes by the palma lift. "Isn't she amazing?" Carter asks as Tabitha Harris skis toward him. "It's her first day skiing," he adds fondly, recalling his own first ski trip to Taos only 15 years ago.
"After we were involuntarily retired from the White House," the former president explained Thursday evening, detailing the Carter Center's early genesis, "we thought we would establish a place to replicate or duplicate Camp David, where we went for 13 days and mediated between Begin and Sadat."
Today, the Center's mission is to advance peace and health in neighborhoods and nations all over the globe, working alongside the world's forgotten people. "Rosalynn and I have visited about 120 countries," Carter continued. "These are usually the poorest and most destitute nations where others don't much want to go. That's where we do our work."
But the Carters soon realized "that the same problems we faced in Africa and in Haiti and in other places existed next door to us." An attempt to target Atlanta neighborhoods with high instances of single-parent families and teenage mothers revealed a "great big red swath across the southern part of the city" when plotted on a map.
With the Atlanta Project, the Carters set out to transform a half-million metropolitan residents into 20 cluster communities, each paired with both a corporate and university partner. The project established after-school programs, immunization clinics, family resource centers, community policing programs, and the FutureForce program, promoting leadership, teamwork, responsibility, and community service among at-risk youth.
The teen leadership project finds Jimmy and Rosalynn characteristically immersed in the hands-on experience of working with these inner-city teenagers, offering them a positive adventure on the slopes of Crested Butte. The couple clearly understands the impact their active involvement can have in a project. In addition to serving as inspirational role models in a nation long bereft of heroic public figures, the Plains couple are skilled at using their stature to call attention to the world's least sexy stories.
In a sense, "Winter Weekend" is another way of "bringing Mohammed to the mountain." There is no question that the adventure is good for the students, expanding their horizons and immersing them in a new and challenging environment. But including the students in the fund-raising weekend is also a shrewd publicity coup, much more effective than trying to drum up enthusiasm about a long weekend for the deep-pocketed.
"It's my first time in Colorado, it's my first time in a resort, it's my first-time on skis. My first time seeing this much snow. It's a lot of first time things," 15-year-old Thomas Brown tells an audience Friday night after a skit presented by the FutureForce students. He is one of the few students who acknowledges that he was "at risk," noting a tendency toward violence before his participation in weekly FutureForce classes, where volunteers help address contemporary teen issues through discussion, skits and community service projects that give the students a chance to put their new leadership skills to use.
Duane Lewis has a different perspective. As the 17-year-old president of his FutureForce team, Lewis didn't see himself as at-risk. "The only risk I believe I have is the risk of being killed every day," Lewis confided. "There's so much violence going on now, getting involved in the wrong thing, getting hurt."
Lewis has set his sights on attending Hampton College or Duke University where he can major in business management and minor in music -- Lewis played keyboards during a FutureForce evening presentation, accompanying dramatic readings of Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise" and the group finale, "Lean on Me." He hopes to become a multi-millionaire. But his view of what to do with those millions has changed over the weekend. "I want to be able to finance trips like this too, like President Carter. He's really an inspiring person. Before I wouldn't have wanted to do this. I would have just wanted to bring me and my family."
The powder of the presidency
A day later, Jimmy Carter is making his way down Houston, Rosalynn's favorite trail, a long green slope that is still a challenge for most of the students following his path. He's flanked by his Secret Service agents as he schusses through the new powder. The biggest security risk on this winter weekend appears to be runaway skiers barreling into the former president, and there is no bigger threat than Jamall Okoeguale, a high school senior from Atlanta who is 6'2", 320 lbs., and hasn't learned to stop yet. Jamall is barreling down Houston surrounded by cries to "Get out of the way!"
Somehow he comes to a stop 10 yards short of President Carter and inches before a Secret Service agent, poised to take the hit. "I was counting on you to break my fall," Jamall laughs. Carter vividly recalled Jamall's day on the slopes later, joking that Jamall's instructors, who didn't show up for dinner, were "still recovering."
As the weekend progresses and Jimmy and Rosalynn become increasingly comfortable with their student guests, it's easy to catch their enthusiasm. "They've told us some very deep truths about life," Carter remarks about the students, moments before hitting the dance floor for some spirited stepping out to "YMCA," complete with full-bodied stadium spelling, "and I for one will never forget."
Carter smiles the whole time they are on the mountain, and he continues to coach the students, enticing them to follow him over a snowbank down a faster "shortcut" that has the kids hooting and hollering as they plunge after him. "Come on, this way, everybody," he calls out, leading a new generation into the fresh, untracked powder. "This way!" p