MEMPHIS, Tenn. — He feared the question. That was it, really. He had no idea what he’d say in response.
This was back in the early 1980s, when Dwayne Spencer was just a kid. He remembers the looming embarrassment. He remembers exactly how it felt.
Spencer lived with his grandmother, his mother and his aunt in a little house outside Somerville. Only, it wasn’t a house, so much as a shack. The ceiling and walls were caving in. The only water came from a single faucet, like an outside faucet, that stuck straight up from the ground.
Which is why Spencer hated it when anyone new would come over, why he feared what they might ask.
“My fear was that somebody was going to ask to use the bathroom and that I was going to have to answer the question and say, ‘We don’t have a bathroom,’ ” says Spencer. “What was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to direct them outside to the grass?”
Spencer is standing in the middle of a happy, busy, construction site. All around him, houses are going up. Former President Jimmy Carter is working alongside his wife, Rosalynn. Hundreds of volunteers are hammering and sawing away. And if Spencer — the CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis — sounds emotional when he talks about all the miraculous work being done, it’s not just because 19 families will move into 19 houses when the project is finished, it’s because he knows exactly how they feel.
“I know what it’s like to live in poverty housing,” he says. “My story isn’t just my story, it’s the story of the families we help.”
This is why Spencer started to tell his story, by the way, after years of keeping it to himself.
He has been CEO of Memphis Habitat since 2001. Only recently did he begin to explain where he found the passion for the job.
“Maybe I was embarrassed a little bit,” he says. “It’s not an easy story to tell.”
But then he tells it, just the same, including all the wonderful parts.
“I was a very happy kid,” he says. “I laughed all the time, climbed trees. I went fishing. I ate dirt. As a country kid does, we cut our Christmas trees down in the woods and dragged them back into the house and somehow propped them up with rocks and strings or whatever we could find. But the house we took the tree back to was pretty much a shack.”
The house had four walls and a living room and three bedrooms. But it was forever in danger of falling down. And it didn’t have a bathroom, or any running water besides that faucet, and there wasn’t even an outhouse nearby.
“Not that I recall using,” says Spencer, 49. “I would just say, ‘I need to use the bathroom’ and my aunt would say ‘OK, baby,’ and she’d take me by the hand, and we’d walk out, and we’d find a spot. And the embarrassing things is we would see where we had done it yesterday or the day before. They’d turn into little ant hills or whatever. That was life, that was my reality at that time. I didn’t know anything else. And while that may seem sort of primitive, the shame and the embarrassment came when someone else came over. I knew other people had indoor plumbing, and I was afraid to have to tell them that we did not.”
Understand, this wasn’t in the 1930s or 1940s. This was up until 1983. That’s when Spencer’s family visited relatives one evening, and returned to find the shack had burned down. The family ultimately moved into an apartment in Brownsville, where Spencer — at age 16 — first learned to use a shower and a tub.
“I struggle to tell these parts of my story,” Spencer says. “The last thing I’d want is to have my mother read this article and be hurt by it, or embarrassed. They did the best they could. But those circumstances of my childhood led to what is happening now. It’s all connected to me.”
Spencer wound up getting a job in the mail room at a Memphis advertising firm, and then worked his way up. He became a media buyer. He graduated from college, and then graduate school. He worked at Pink Palace in development. And then, in 2001, he heard about the opening at Habitat for Humanity.
“On the last Friday they were taking applications I hand-delivered my resume,” Spencer says. “Honestly, I really didn’t expect to hear back from them. I’m sure there was somebody with better skills, who understood community development and housing and mortgages, because I didn’t understand any of that. They took a chance on me. It really was them taking a chance on me.”
Funny what can happen when you give people a chance.
Under Spencer’s leadership, the Memphis Habitat affiliate has grown from a staff of 10 to 38. The annual budget has grown from $1 million to $12 million. And it was Spencer who, nearly two years ago, got the crazy idea to try to bring the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project to Memphis.
“I thought we could pull it off,” he says. “I guess we did.”
So now the work site is buzzing, with activity and hope. Spencer’s aunt — who used to lead him by the hand when he had to go to the bathroom out back — is one of the volunteers. Spencer’s mother texts happy messages to her son, in all caps and with plenty of exclamation points.
“She’s proud,” says Spencer. “We all understand the importance of this work. Everyone deserves a decent place to live.”
Spencer, who now lives in a four-bedroom Lakeland home, visited the site of that old shack, not so long ago. He remembered the bad and the good.
“It’s a part of who I am, and everything I do,” Spencer says. “The shame that we may have felt then is nothing compared to the pride in where we are now.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com