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Women's projects expanding across N.C.

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For the past decade, 56-year-old Sandy Fitzgerald has worked as a psychiatric nurse in Research Triangle Park. But one Saturday a month, Fitzgerald trades medicine for handywork, taking on the role of a painter, builder, or landscaper. Fitzgerald is a co-founder of the non-profit organization SWOOP, Strong Women Organizing Outrageous Projects. The group emerged during the aftermath of Hurricane Fran, which left many of Fitzgerald's Wake County neighbors with trees splintering their roofs and water flooding their floors. Although she escaped the storm with little more than a fallen tree, Fitzgerald and some equally fortunate friends spent the weeks following Fran helping others pick through the debris.

"I remember looking at one of my friends and saying, 'It's like we swoop in and when we leave, everything is dramatically changed,'" Fitzgerald says. "The first house we went to had lots of tall pine trees that were down like matchsticks. The homeowner was out of town at the time. I thought to come home to this would just be awful. We didn't let that happen."

When a semblance of order was restored, Fitzgerald decided to make community service a permanent part of her life. Along with 11 other friends and neighbors, she began organizing monthly service projects.

"At first, we would hand-print flyers and send them out via snail mail," she recalled. "Or we would call each other up and say, 'Ok, we're going to do a swoop this Saturday. Can you come? Can you bring a chainsaw?'"

In the eight years since Fitzgerald was inspired by the clean-up effort, SWOOP has put chainsaws, log splitters and other power tools in the hands of hundreds of Triangle-area women. Through word of mouth alone, the group has grown to embrace almost 400 members, connected now via email. Their projects, once limited to the Wake County area, have spread east to Nashville and north to Roxboro. Their small network has grown out of the Wake County neighborhood to include members as far away as Greensboro and Wilmington.

"It has turned out to be a good thing for a lot of the women involved," she says. "We get to help the community, and women get to learn and use new skills. You can write a check and send it off in the mail, but you don't get the personal contact that we get."

In 1998, for example, SWOOP took on a two-month project building a playground for Wake Interfaith Hospitality Network. The organization, which had recently moved into an old 7-Eleven building, runs a day shelter for homeless children while their parents seek employment. However, the lawn surrounding the building was not suitable for the kids. It was small, dirty and sloped. SWOOP decided to help the organization transform the space. They found a female architect to design the playground and make landscaping plans for surrounding area.

"We built this really large playground," Fitzgerald said. "I mean really large. We had to shovel a lot of dirt and sand over the two Saturdays we worked there. But, by the time it was done, the little kids had their noses pressed to the windows asking, can we play now?"

As the group has grown, so have its dreams. On Saturday (Sept. 11), SWOOP is hosting its first benefit dinner to increase awareness about the organization and raise money for a truck. The event has been titled "Strong Women and Heroes" and will honor the women of the first response team on 9/11. Authors Mary Carouba and Susan Hagen will speak about their book, Women at Ground Zero, which tells the story of 30 women who served in the first response forces at the World Trade Center. The book is dedicated to three women who died in the rescue effort.

In addition, the dinner will honor women working in public safety in the Triangle area. The recognition, called Sisters of Strength Award, is to be given annually. This year, nominations were made from organizations such as the Carrboro Police Department, Raleigh Fire Department and the Four Oaks EMS.

As she describes the event, Fitzgerald lets out a laugh of overwhelmed excitement. "This is just another of our outrageous projects," she says. "It has been a dream of mine to create an event to honor women in this area."

Strong Women and Heroes, Saturday, Sept. 11, at the Sheraton Chapel Hill. Tickets range from $50 to $100. Info: www.swoop4u.org.

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