Story & Photography by Shelly Swanger
Even during the times when our economy was more robust, there was always someone less fortunate than the next. As you can imagine, during times of financial uncertainty, acts of charitable giving are, for the most part, even harder to come by. As a freelance photographer, it is rare that an opportunity presents itself to do something truly significant and life changing. This past February, I was fortunate to have such an opportunity come my way. While the Steelers and Cardinals donned their football helmets, I was in Tampa wearing a helmet of a different kind—and striving toward a very special goal.
Founded in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has since built more than 300,000 homes for families who could not afford one through conventional means. Last fall, my good friend and Habitat for Humanity project supervisor, Rick Vail, told me of a unique and ambitious event. “The SuperBuild is a first-of-its-kind homebuilding project conceived by Habitat,” explained Rick. “The project will take place during the week of Super Bowl XLIII and has been appropriately named SuperBuild.” I became increasingly fascinated as he spelled out the project details.
In the seven days leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, five homes would be built by an army of volunteers: two homes in Pinellas County and three homes in Hillsborough County. Then a “Champion’s House” would be built on Sunday near Raymond James Stadium in Tampa prior to the big game. That house would then be awarded to a family in the state of the winning Super Bowl team, either Pennsylvania or Arizona. The idea was to use a high-profile event to raise awareness of the wonderful work that Habitat for Humanity does every day, all over the world.
This caught my attention and, even more importantly, I knew that I wanted to contribute something to the cause. Through his connections, Rick helped me to make inroads with Habitat to see if I could document this history-making event. After the communications director, Jamie Cataldo, interviewed me, not only was I granted permission, but I was also named the official photographer for the two homes to be built in Pinellas County. I was excited—I had been given a great opportunity to shoot a high-profile event, as well as do something good along the way.
I was told there would be various VIPs stopping by to lend a hand during the weeklong project. I had visions of rubbing elbows with all kinds of celebrities and, of course, I would be there to capture the moment! I mean, we all know that “everybody who’s anybody” turns up sometime during the Super Bowl festivities. I didn’t know it at the time, but my focus was about to shift to something far more meaningful. I would be getting a very important lesson about the human spirit and what it really means to be a VIP who gives back to the community.
In addition to helping build their own home, the would-be homeowners must contribute 250 hours of “sweat equity” as a volunteer on other Habitat homes.
It was almost exactly one week before the Super Bowl, and I was excited to get started! I headed out to the Pinellas build site in Clearwater and got to work shooting pictures. Over the next few days, the funniest thing happened: I began to see what Habitat for Humanity was all about. I spoke with the many amazing volunteers who selflessly gave of their time and money; and, mostly, I got to know the homeowners—the very people who would be living in these houses.
I learned that homes built by Habitat for Humanity are not given away; rather, they are built at cost with donated materials and labor, and then sold to qualified families through no-interest loans. The homeowner candidates must have a steady income and job history, and be able to make the monthly mortgage payments. In addition to helping build their own home, the would-be homeowners must contribute 250 hours of “sweat equity” as a volunteer on other Habitat homes. This is not charity, but rather a chance for good, hardworking people, who may have hit some hard times, to get back on their feet and realize the dream of owning their own home.
On Saturday, January 24, the home sites were nothing more than concrete slabs. By the following Saturday, the homes were move-in ready and dedication ceremonies were held. Publix Super Markets sponsored one home, and a group known as Women Build, based in Pennsylvania, sponsored the other. The Women Build project was unique in that all of the funds to build the house were raised by Tampa women and all of the crew supervisors were women. Volunteers for both homes came from all over the country, including a group of skilled craftsmen who drove all the way from Maryland to help see this project through.
By the end of the week, in my mind, the focus of my assignment had changed. I became more interested in photographing the astonishing transformations of the home sites and capturing the stories of the homeowners and volunteers, and less concerned about whether any celebrities would show up to hammer a few nails for the camera.
During the week, I spent a lot of time with the homeowners who would be receiving these homes. Annie Collins is in her late 70s, and that week, she received the keys to the first home she had ever owned. She donned her blue hard hat every day of the SuperBuild and was out working on her house—her numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren were around to lend a helping hand as well.
Likill Tinch had her home dedicated the same day. She cried as she talked about the many obstacles that she and her three children had overcome in order to realize their dream of a family home. She explained that she had to apply for the Habitat program many times before being accepted—and her message was clear. “Never, ever give up your dreams,” she said emotionally. After speeches were made and keys handed over, everyone was asked to place their hands on the houses while a prayer was said. It was a really extraordinary day for me and everyone involved.
The SuperBuild week went by in a blur and Super Bowl Sunday rolled around quickly. With the two homes dedicated, Sunday was a day to relax, laugh and pose for pictures. But there was one last project to complete—to build the frame of the home that would be going to the state of the Super Bowl champion—the “Champion’s House.” The Habitat crew was, once again, busy building another dream come true for a Habitat homeowner.
We started at 5 a.m. with Raymond James Stadium in the background being readied for the big game. The Goodyear blimp made practice runs overhead and the entertainers ran through their rehearsals. Our story attracted both local and national media. In addition to ESPN’s cameras, we found MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann doing a live broadcast. We persuaded him and his production team to pose for some pictures and even hammer a nail or two! By mid-afternoon the walls were up and the crew was finished. Time for football and Bruce Springsteen! To cap off the event, we had one final meeting to thank everyone who was part of this great weeklong project.
As I stated before, this was the first time Habitat for Humanity had attempted an event of this scope and it hopes to see this effort grow into even bigger and better things. On a final note, I cannot say enough about the amazing people who work full-time for Habitat for Humanity; they are people who have chosen to put their special skills and talents toward making others’ dreams come true—they are true VIPs. I hope this story will inspire others in our area to get involved with their local Habitat for Humanity affiliate and do great things to help the community.
— V —
Shelly Swanger is a photographer living in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and has lived in many parts of the country, including Atlanta, Georgia, before settling in Northwest Florida. Taking pictures is her true passion, and over the past few years, photography has slowly become her career. Her ultimate goal is to take a photographic journey around the United States. Her work has been published in numerous print and online publications. For more information, visit www.shellyswangerphotography.com.