SAN JOSE -- Tiruwork Leyew kept glancing at the house. Yes, that really was Jimmy Carter, swinging a hammer as he helped install the front door in what soon will be her family home.
"When they told us that the president was going to fix your door, I was so shocked," Leyew said. "I cannot believe this. I'm speechless."
Her fiancé, Mulugeta Jenber, added they couldn't even get out words of gratitude when Carter put down his tools.
"But they know how to hug," said Carter, smiling.
The former president and first lady were in Silicon Valley on Tuesday to highlight the acute need for affordable housing as part of their national tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of Habitat for Humanity's Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.
Carter said there is a danger to the country's growing divide between extreme wealth and poverty. While he emphasized that he wasn't criticizing either political party, Carter added that the current stalemate over the federal budget is hitting society's most vulnerable the hardest.
"Since I was in the White House, the disparity between the haves and have-nots has more than doubled," Carter said. "That means the middle class gets squeezed out. The average person who is in trouble is the one who gets hurt. I'm afraid in this current environment, those are the people who will get left behind."
Silicon Valley is an apt location for that message. The high-tech industry has been a profit-generating engine for the country's gradually improving economy. At the same time, the area's poor continue to slip deeper into poverty -- in part because of sky-high housing costs.
The median sales price for an existing single-family home in Santa Clara County was $744,500 in August, an increase of 24.1 percent from a year earlier, according to real estate company DataQuick. A recently released index by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality also found that 330,000 residents -- 18.7 percent of the county -- live in poverty.
A key ingredient to solving society's problems and stabilizing families, the Carters believe, is housing. That's why, a day after helping to build new housing in East Oakland, they once again donned worn clothes on Tuesday as they headed to East San Jose. There, they worked together to hang the front door on a ranch-style house being renovated by Habitat for Humanity, the international nonprofit that helps low-income families.
Carter, 89, who has spent his post-presidency as a goodwill ambassador and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, thought nothing of climbing up a small ladder as he worked on the door frame.
"People sometimes say to us, 'Well, you're only working on one house,'" Carter said. "But look at the impact on this couple here when they get their house. That's profound. The second thing is Habitat sets an example of how we all can help hard-working, low-income and middle-class people and address the basic human right of having a decent place to live."
Jenber said he had "never dared to dream" that they could ever own a house. Immigrants from Ethiopia, Jenber is a machine operator and Leyew is a nursing assistant. They live in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Clara with their 14-month-old son and Leyew's mother. When Habitat for Humanity accepted their application, they agreed to put in 500 hours of "sweat equity" to help renovate the home they will purchase from the organization.
"When our son wants to play now, he can't because there's no place for him to go," Jenber said. "Now, he will have a place to play."
Jenber, paused to look at the house.
"The president," he added in disbelief, "is fixing our door."
And fixing attention on a grave problem, said Jonathan Reckford, Habitat for Humanity's CEO.
"The Carters are so great because they bring attention to the great need for housing, and we wanted to come here because we believe it's the least affordable place in the United States," Reckford said. "We think that housing is a requisite to break the cycle of poverty for families."
This also is a labor of love for the Carters. When an aide told him it was time to answer some media questions before heading to the airport for their next stop in Denver, he expressed mild disapproval.
"You can't have me," he said. "We're not done yet."
Later the Carters, married 67 years, joked that they're a good team because he does exactly what she says. They reminisced about homes built around the world and how Rosalynn Carter had never pounded a nail until working on her first Habitat house.
"But the most memorable thing for us is watching families move in," her husband added.
Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.