In 1996, after Hurricane Fran pummeled the Triangle, it was common to see neighbors helping neighbors. They used chainsaws to dismantle fallen trees and rebuilt damaged homes.
Once the repairs were made, most folks went back to their lives.
But a few women 16, to be exact decided they wanted to continue helping people on a regular basis. Others joined their efforts, and eventually the organization was given a name: SWOOP, for Smart Women Organizing Outrageous Projects.
The group would swoop in, complete the project and swoop back out.
Today, nonprofit SWOOP utilizes more than 1,500 volunteers and has partnered with more than 40 agencies, including Interact, Chatham County Habitat for Humanity, Durham Affordable Housing Coalition and First in Families of Wake County.
Ive lived in Cary most of my life, and Ive never heard of SWOOP. Jim Wheeler, a SWOOP volunteer, emailed me after I wrote about volunteering with Habitat for Humanity of Wake Countys Women Build program, which encourages women to organize, fund and build two houses annually.
SWOOP is spearheaded by women but welcomes volunteers of all ages, genders and skill levels.
Wheeler, who describes himself as semi-retired, loves volunteering with SWOOP because of its efficiency. Most projects last a day and produce big results.
Ive worked with a lot of volunteer groups in the past, and this group is the most organized, focused and enjoyable group I have ever worked with, Wheeler says. SWOOP communicates well, has all the material on site and knows what its doing. No standing around waiting for someone to explain the job or waiting on materials. Volunteers range from women who have never used a hammer to extremely experienced craftsmen.
Lisa Wilson, SWOOPs executive director, adds: The majority of projects are all organized by women, but the volunteers can range in age from 13, as long as theres a guardian, all the way up to 70 no experience necessary. We provide the tools and the equipment, and if we need to show someone how to do a task, we do that as well.
We have women show up who are widowed and theyre trying to maintain their home or they want to learn how to use tools, Wilson continues. Sometimes we have mother/daughter teams or mother/son teams come out. Its a neat experience.
Workdays, called SWOOPIN Saturdays, are the second Saturday of each month for seven months of the year. The group takes off summers and the month of January.
We really work with a diverse group of organizations; were not just building houses, Wilson says. You can be working with Interact or with homeless women or men, with children in a low-income neighborhood, the elderly.
In 2011, SWOOP won a $25,000 Pepsi Refresh grant to start its Ramp it Up! program, which provides wheelchair ramps for those in need.
In 2012, SWOOP received a Community Builder Award from Passage Home for its efforts in designing and building an outdoor playground and garden area for the Raleigh Safety and Community Club in Southeast Raleigh.
Recently, volunteers painted the Helen Wright Center in downtown Raleigh and designed a 12-step meditation trail for The Healing Place of Wake County Womens Center in Raleigh.
Its really great when at the end of the work day, and we normally finish in a day, you get to see your accomplishments, but you also get to see the faces of the people youre helping, Wilson says.
Currently, SWOOP is working with several other local agencies to retrofit the home of Nic Manning, a 22-year-old Apex man who was paralyzed a few years ago after a car accident. Manning lives with his grandmother, and the home is in need of an accessibility overhaul.
The new roof is on and a new HVAC system is installed, but many things are still needed. Manning is attending school and making progress in therapy.
We need eight windows so we can finish painting the inside of the house, Wilson says. Were also going to need accessible appliances.
Once Wilson can procure the materials, shell have the volunteers ready to move.
Maybe Santa will circle back and make a second delivery in Apex.
For more information about SWOOP, visit www.swoop4u.org.