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Half a world away he builds homes with a president


CHATHAM–Rarely do David and Julia Rubel have the chance to experience what they write about in the books their company, Agincourt Press, produces for publishers, since Agincourt specializes in historical topics.

So when the couple had the chance to follow up their latest book, a history of Habitat for Humanity, by participating in an international build led by former President Jimmy Carter, they packed their bags and headed to Thailand. Their work on the book inspired the decision to volunteer with Habitat, which they had never done.

“In the book, it was more important for me to talk about other people’s experiences, because the book is about how Habitat has changed people’s lives,” said David. “Once I wrote the book it became clear to me I had to participate and see what it was like. It was a way for my personal and professional life to come together in a way it hadn’t before.”

“It was interesting for David to have researched the book fully and then do a build–to look at it from the outside and then participate. It was a natural follow-up to the production of the book, for me as well,” added Julia, who helped edit the book, titled: If I Had a Hammer: Building Homes and Hope with Habitat for Humanity.

The Rubels have been running Agincourt Press from an office upstairs at 25 Main Street in Chatham village for almost 15 years. Agincourt does “book packaging,” which involves handling book projects from start to finish. Their books include kid-friendly texts that explain science concepts and important historical figures, and they are known for their historical tomes for adults on topics like WWII and the Civil War.

The Habitat book is written for a middle school-age audience, but “like a lot of the books I write, adults can read it too. It’s meant for adults to read,” David said. The book is a collection of stories about people involved with Habitat and the difference a home has made in the lives of partner families.

A highlight of the book project for David was an hour-long interview with President Carter who, along with his wife, Roslyn, has been a key Habitat supporter for decades. The book includes a foreword by Mr. Carter.

“I’ve written so much about the presidents, to meet one and interview one was a thrill,” said David.

Habitat for Humanity, an international non-profit organization that describes itself as an ecumenical Christian ministry dedicated to providing “decent, safe and affordable” homes without regard to the religion or race of homeowners or volunteers. It has built 300,000 homes around the world since its founding in the United States in 1976. The Columbia County chapter of the organization has built 10 of those homes. Each Habitat “build,” which is the word the organization uses to describe the construction of homes, is run by volunteers, who partner with the future homeowners to construct low-cost housing. The Carters became involved in 1984, and every year since have held an annual Carter Work Project at locations around the globe.

This year’s Carter Work Project was held in November in Thailand’s Mekong River Valley, at five sites. Build participants like the Rubels paid for their own airfare and paid a fee for lodging and food during the week, which is arranged by Habitat. The Rubels went to the largest of the five sites, in Chiang Mai, where 2,000 volunteers built 82 houses in the course of five days.

David called the experience both “exhilarating and bewildering.” Volunteers arose at 4:30 a.m. every day, were on site by 7 a.m., and worked in 90-degree heat until 5 p.m.

“You’re exhausted physically, you’re exhausted mentally. I’m not a professional contractor, and even a simple house is a complicated thing. The whole experience is an emotional challenge–working with the homeowner and other volunteers, and the many language and cultural barriers. It’s thoroughly exhausting on every level,” said David.

“But it’s also thoroughly engaging on every level,” said Julia. “To me, it was the most fun I’ve had as a grownup. And it challenges you.”

President Carter’s commitment to Habitat is genuine, the Rubels said. David was able to join the president for a brief lunch in Thailand, and the first thing Carter asked was: “Is your house going to get done?”

“He’s clearly a former president; he’s clearly an impressive man, but he’s also very friendly and gentle. It’s quite clear how devoted the volunteers are to him on a personal basis. He’s enormously popular,” said David.

“And influential,” said Julia. “By example, he inspires the volunteers to give 100%. He is there to work and he expects everyone else to work.”

David Rubel kept a blog during the Mekong build, which can be accessed through the Habitat website, (look for links to Thailand project), or through his own website, The Habitat book is available at all major booksellers and locally at The Chatham Bookstore. 

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