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They gave up their spring break to help beautify the Jimmy Carter Historic Site in Plains, Georgia.

Then the four Eastern Kentucky University students enjoyed an intimate, informal dinner with their models for such selfless service: former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn.

It was hardly an elegant state dinner – barbecue, mac and cheese, beans, candied sweet potatoes and blueberry cobbler on paper plates – but don’t tell that to Esther Epps, a graduate public health student who grew up in upstate New York and now lives in Berea.

“It was an absolute honor to meet President Carter and Rosalynn Carter,” she said. “Their humanitarian legacy is amazing, and it was inspiring to meet people who have seen the world and made such a positive impact on international health. We conversed about the volunteer work we did that week, alternative spring break programs, fishing, peanuts, solar energy, and their dedication to their hometown.”

Even an incident involving a fallen fork left a vivid impression on Epps.

“I was surprised at how humble and down to earth they are,” she said. “At one point, Mrs. Carter dropped her fork on the floor. I picked it up for her and asked, ‘Would you like me to grab you another one?’ She said calmly, ‘No, that didn’t harm it much!’ It made me smile that she had a ‘low maintenance’ quality to her.

“I was also impressed to hear that they are still conducting their humanitarian work into their 90s. They still meet with ambassadors, leaders of nonprofits, and others, to continue their work of improving democracy and decreasing disease burden worldwide.”

Epps was joined during the week by fellow EKU students Joel Robinson, an undeclared freshman from Louisville, Kentucky; Emma Schadler, a senior parks and recreation major from Walton, Kentucky; and Tanya Cifranik, sophomore environmental health science major from Bedford, Kentucky; and Will Keaton, assistant director of student life-community service. Working with the Plains Better Hometown Project, the City of Plains, National Park Service and the Georgia Department of Economic Development, their services included landscaping work, repairs to the chicken coop on President Carter’s boyhood farm, and helping beautify the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Garden at a visitor information center. They were even made honorary City Council members for the month of March, their certificates signed by President Carter.

“The first time I saw (the Carters), it was a moment of shock,” Robinson said. “It was clear how humble and kind they are. We talked about Plains, fishing, peanuts, the work we did over the week, and other minor things. It meant a lot to me that they would make time to eat and take pictures with us.”

Epps found a common bond with the former First Lady when the discussion turned to mental health awareness and treatment. “That was wonderful to hear, as that is a cause that is important to me as well.”

She also learned at the homestead historic site about how local African Americans played a huge role in President Carter’s youth. “He has indicated that African American women helped raise him. That was great to hear and understand how his childhood experiences helped him be an advocate for civil rights later on his life.”

Many EKU students weren’t born when President and Rosalynn Carter came to Richmond in 1997 for a Habitat for Humanity build. More than 200 volunteers, including many from the campus community, assisted with the construction of three Habitat homes.

But their example has not been lost on Robinson, for whom spending spring break in service was also a natural extension of the lessons he learned as a child. “I’ve been raised by my momma and the Boy Scouts to believe that there’s no greater use of time than service,” he said. “I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. I believe that it’s important to give time to service projects because there are countless organizations that need help, and each of these impacts the community in ways that we may never know.”

In addition to the Georgia trip, dozens of other EKU students lent their time and talents to a wide variety of Alternative Spring Break service projects in Charleston, South Carolina; Washington, D.C.; New Orleans, Louisiana; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; and Jacksonville, Florida.