July 1, 2013 8:22:19 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
There are no greeting card shops in Baghdad or Kabul, but one Columbus crafter is doing what she can to ensure that a father deployed in the Middle East can send his wife at home a pretty anniversary card, or a Navy mom at sea for months at a time has a special birthday card to mail her daughter.
Shirley Swoope is part of a network of creative, generous volunteers around the country who make greeting cards for Operation Write Home -- a nonprofit cause helping heroes stay in touch with loved ones on the homefront. Since 2007, the grassroots campaign has sent more than two million cards to deployed service members in all branches of the military.
Homecrafters make two types of cards: blank greeting cards for service members to use for their loved ones, and "Any Hero" cards filled with handwritten messages of encouragement and support, to be distributed to those serving far from home.
All the missed birthdays, graduations, even births, during deployment are hard to bear, but these lovingly-made cards help maintain that link that spans the miles.
"This is my job. It's a mission, it really is," Swoope smiled, deftly wielding a serious tape dispenser and assembling an elaborate, multi-layered greeting card in quick order.
There's not much this retired Bellsouth outside plant designer and corporate trainer does slowly. That's how she acquired the nickname "Taz" -- as in Tasmanian devil -- from friends. And why her well-stocked crafting workshop behind her house is called "Tazmania." The 16-by-24-foot haven she and her husband, Charles, built largely with their own hands is filled with every tool and piece of equipment needed to make the intricately decorated cards.
Swoope's seemingly inexhaustible energy is also why she's been able to create more than 300 handcrafted cards for OWH in the first six months of 2013 alone. That doesn't count the hundreds she's made since first stumbling across an online link to Operation Write Home and the "Any Hero" card program about three years ago, when she was still an avid scrapbooker.
"When I first read about this, I knew I had to get involved," said the Mississippi University for Women alumna, who absorbs all expenses involved in making the cards. Her primary motivation is very personal.
"I'm really doing this because my dad was a World War II vet and lost his leg from an injury he got," she explained. "When I was coming up, our vacations were to his Third Armored Division reunions. I grew up understanding about the military."
What is OWH?
Started by craft enthusiast Sandy Allnock in Washington state six years ago, Operation Write Home sends boxes filled with hundreds of blank all-occasion cards to deployed men and women in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, National Guard and even forward-deployed Coast Guard. Contacts sign up to receive boxes for their unit, and share them with all who are stationed alongside them.
Each box is packed with care, alternating styles, colors and cardmakers from all over the U.S.A. A ziplock bag filled with about 30 "Any Hero" cards signed by adults and children at home tops each box -- messages of gratitude to be delivered to those in need of a positive word.
"I like that they put an emphasis on getting signed cards to those who don't get much mail," noted Swoope.
Write a message
"I'd love to be able to send 100 cards every month," Swoope said, running paper sprinkled in patriotic stars and stripes through her Silhouette Cameo die cutting machine ("the best piece of equipment I've ever had."). She could use a little help.
"I really would like to get some groups who would be willing to help write a message in the 'Any Hero' cards, or even help put the cards together. I would bring the parts and help," she offered.
Garden clubs, Scouts, civic clubs, businesses, schools and churches can have card signings. Some card-makers have even carried cards on flights and asked other passengers to sign them.
Notes can be short or long, about freedoms you're grateful for, about your family or community. Clippings of a happy story from your hometown or a cartoon to evoke a smile are welcome. Children can color pictures to include. All cards are sent with an envelope but are unsealed; shippers review all mail before it's sent to military branches
Taking it to the streets
On June 15, Swoope invited the public to write any hero. Assisted by Uncle Sam -- Alex Morabito, her 6 1/2-year-old grandson visiting from Phoenix, Ariz. -- she set up in front of Walmart in Columbus and asked passersby to share a brief message in a card.
"I did it Father's Day weekend because of all the fathers that are deployed," explained Swoope. "I have every intention of going to Starkville and West Point, too, but I started with Columbus because of Columbus Air Force Base. If someone knows of a spot they'd like me to set up, I'd be glad to. I love doing this; I believe it's important."
She plans to get a substantial number of "Any Hero" cards signed this week, at an annual family Fourth of July shrimp boil, when upwards of 100 people gather.
"You've heard of sing-for-your-supper? Well, this is sign-for-your-supper," she chuckled. "I'll set up a table and ask everybody to sign a card."
As far as Swoope is aware, she may be the only person in Mississippi making OWH cards, but she's eager to learn if there are others. She urges anyone interested in crafting cards or supporting OWH to explore the website operationwritehome.org, which shares tutorials, sketches, card-making challenges, projects and letters from service members.
On the site's blog, notes from grateful recipients around the world are posted -- an Army major who at times wrote home on torn-off covers of MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat), a Navy crewman who received OWH cards via a resupply oiler, a Baghdad Embassy staffer thankful for a blank Father's Day card to send home. The list goes on.
"Some of the stories are so touching; have a tissue ready," smiled Swoope. "You don't know who's going to get and use the cards you make. I picture a daddy getting to send a card to his child, or a wife writing to her husband. "
A banner she made to hang at her card-signing table reads, "Please take a moment to thank a hero; they've given up more than moments for us."
"I mean that. One moment of my time is nothing in comparison to what they've given. This is just something I can do to support those serving. If it makes their lives easier in any small way, I'm all for it."
Editor's note: Contact Shirley Swoope about Operation Write Home at [email protected]
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.