By Jeff Wolfe
Megan Heyer didn’t have any big ideas when she first rowed in the International Dragon Boat Festival on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. But the East Greenwich resident is now the leader of a large group of local women who not only participate in the race, but have turned their fun into helping others.
They began competing in 2009 and are called the Witches of East Greenwich, but there’s nothing bad about what they do. Instead, they are finding ways to turn the energy they spend on the water into giving to others.
“I really didn’t think it would turn into this,” Heyer said. “You never say never, but I didn’t envision this being the organization it is now five years ago. I was at a Bunco game, and somebody asked me what I was doing on that Saturday. I said I was doing the Dragon Boat thing with people I work with. They were like that sounds great.”
It was great enough to draw interest for two boats in its first year in 2009. Now The Witches of Greenwich will field nine boats in this year’s Dragonboat Festival, which takes place the first Saturday of October. And with 21 crew members per boats, that’s almost 200 members.
“The first year we did it was to see what interest there was and if people would want to do it again,” Heyer said. “If you’re good to yourself first, then you can step out and be good to other people. People were asking us about it and they were new to this area. We were doing it for ourselves for low key enjoyment and stepping out of our comfort zones.”
One of the organization’s goals now is to bring comfort to others in some way. The Witches choose two charities per year that they donate money too. This year’s recipients are the Larc School in Bellmawr and the Angels of God Clothing Closet in Pitman.
Other charities over the past few years have included the Robin’s Nest, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Erin’s Gift of Hope, Mother’s Matter, Family Promise of Gloucester County, the Abrahamson Center at the University of Pennsylvania and HeadStrong and a scholarship that is awarded to a local student each year.
“The fundamental idea is that we reach women and children in our area,” Heyer said. “At the annual meeting, if anybody has a charity they feel strongly about, we look into it. It has to be a 501c3 charity and it has to benefit women or families.”
In all, the Witches have donated approximately $46,000 to those charities.
With so many financial donations coming into the organization, Heyer was glad to make the Witches an official 501c7 nonprofit in 2012.
“It was getting so big and now we are collecting thousands of dollars and we can keep going in the right direction and protect ourselves as an organization,” Heyer said. “I’m not an accountant or lawyer. I had to sit down and read and learn and research. It was a moderate undertaking and definitely an exercise in patience. But I’m really glad it did happen and that we are recognized as a nonprofit. It helps with taxes.”
Besides the Dragon Boat Festival, the Witches fundraisers include its annual Witches Ball which is scheduled for Friday, June 13, and its second annual golf outing set for Friday, Oct. 17.
“We are very excited for it to be on a Friday the 13th,” Heyer said of the ball. “We thought it would be really fun to have on that night. It is a great time for the community to come out for a night and to get dressed up. It’s a charity function and we like to have it at a relatively low cost.”
The Witches Ball includes having silent auction baskets and a 50/50 raffle to raise money.
Heyer said the Witches’ first golf outing also went better than expected.
“The golf actually did really well,” Heyer said. “We raised a little over $4,000. We had people who had never golfed before come out and give it a try, which was fun.”
The Witches also sell My Mom’s A Witch and My Wife’s A Witch T-shirts, and Witches car magnets, each with the Witches of East Greenwich logo, which shows a witch riding on a boat oar.
“One of the Witches had a sister who is a graphic artist,” Heyer said. “We had a conversation about what we envisioned it to be with a witch on an oar and the gold and green background, which are our township colors for our schools.
“Everything we earn with those things goes to charity.”
The money and the charities they go to help motivate the Witches when it comes time for the competition. Heyer admits the day of the Dragon Boat Festival is much more about fun than the final result. There are three races for each team on the straight course that takes about three minutes or a little less to complete. The festival had 61 races in all last year.
“It’s kind of an all-day tailgate,” Heyer said. “You watch some other boats, and some come from places like Germany and Japan. There’s that serious faction, then there is that faction like us. What has been the lure is that it is competitive as you want it to be for yourself. You are pretty exhausted after three minutes.”
Heyer emphasized that while some may work to get in better shape for the race, there’s not a required physical fitness component.
“It’s just a low level commitment,” she said. “We have three practices. It’s just a great way to spend the day and is very family friendly and you get to meet a lot of different people.”
The festival provides the boats, so there is no financial commitment for that for the group. She said the commitment for the members of each boat can vary, depending on personal schedules. The 21 women on a boat include 20 rowers and one drummer to keep the rhythm for the rowers.
“Because of the size of the group, you can practice more or less or whenever you can fit it in,” she said. “Between work, shuttling the kids around, and taking care of families, this is a little bit of time we can carve out for ourselves.”
The Witches of Greenwich isn’t the only local competitor in the races. The Queens of Swedes, from the Swedesboro/Woolwich area, also has competed since 2011 and had six boats last year. The Queens, also donate money to charities, including the South Jersey Rescue, a shelter for abandoned and stray pets; King N Things, Miracle for Mateo, Child Inc. and have a scholarship for a local student.
Heyer has no grand plans for the future for the Witches, but she hopes the organization continues to grow.
“I’m just going to take it as it comes,” she said. “You never know what the future holds for anybody. Everybody’s future changes and I’m grateful for every moment that I have and to see how that goes on.”
That attitude may be in part due to the loss of one of the original members of Boat 2 for the Witches. Rosael Perez-Amoroso attended her final boat race this past October, but couldn’t compete. She eventually died of cancer about six weeks later. The team wore R4R (Row 4 Rosael) patches at the race and dedicated their silver medal to her that day.
Those type of connections between boat members may well make this a long-term venture for most.
“As long as the interest and desire is there, and people want to be a part of it, that’s how things thrive,” Heyer said. “I don’t see it ending anytime soon. I’m happy it is what it is. Once you want more, you start putting pressure on yourself. The bottom line is it’s a lot of fun. We are one big team. That’s what I practice and preach. We can’t all fit on one boat. It’s a community team and that’s the bottom line.”