COLUMBIA— They’ve all had setbacks.
Losing a job. Falling behind on a mortgage. Being buried in medical bills.
Many of their struggles are not so unique. They are felt by the millions afflicted by a flagging economy and the uncertain outcomes of life’s chances and choices. They are felt by the millions who wonder, “Can anything be done to make my life better?”
Five mid-Missouri residents are trying to answer that question.
During an intensive six weeks, they’ve been meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Central Missouri Community Action Center in Columbia to take part in a small-business startup program. They have a range of ideas — a coffeehouse, a nonprofit youth sports league and a website that caters to the unemployed — ideas they’ve been thinking of for months, if not years.
This was the first time the center, which offers a variety of services for low to moderate-income people, has offered this kind of help.
At the center, staff help refine the participants’ proposals and give them lessons on the countless factors that go into devising a business plan and launching a new operation. What permits do they need? How much will they have to pay in taxes? How do they promote themselves with little more than a semblance of a marketing budget?
In mid-September, the classes ended, and in the upcoming weeks, participants will meet individually with center staff to figure out their next moves.
Ideally, they’ll then receive a loan from the center’s microloan pool. Dianna Moore, the center’s director of economic development, said the average loan will likely be about $5,000. So far, the pool consists of donations from local businesses, but the center also hopes to obtain a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It’s a daunting time to take on what has always been a daunting endeavor. Economic doom and gloom blankets the news. Banks are hesitant to loan. Consumers are reluctant to spend.
But five Missouri residents are forging ahead.
Since the mid-1990s, wherever she lived, Chris Brandt always had a garden. And it was always a place, she says, where she felt a certain measure of solitude and reassurance amid her chaotic life. She spends hours a day in her garden in Boonville, which contains more than 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables. She grows most of her own food and has plenty left over for her church.
“I’ve been living this way. It just never occurred to me make it a job,” she says of her plan to start an organic farm.
Brandt, 47, spent most of her adult life concentrating on her role as a mother. She hasn’t held a job since 1998. Her circumstances have given her little choice: she has to do something.
By the beginning of 2004, Brandt had long since moved past one set of hard times. She had her first child when she was 18. She married the father of her child, who she says was abusive and an alcoholic, because “that’s what you did back then.” She relied on drugs to cope. They had two more children. She left him when she was 27.
Her second husband, who she met in 1995, is an intelligent, caring man, she says, a man so considerate that he took her children out for dinner to ask if it was OK to go on a date with their mother. They married in 1998 and built a house in Boonville. He worked as a manager at a grain processing plant. She stayed at home with her three kids and his two. They wanted to start a farm together.
That farm is now her own endeavor.
In 2004, while her husband was at work, a crane’s cable snapped under the weight of its load and struck him in the back of the head.
He went back to work shortly afterward but started behaving erratically, she says.
At times, he seemed fine. His speech was unaffected. He could carry conversations. Other times, he’d stare right through Brandt after a long day, she says, like she wasn’t even there. He’d play solitaire on the computer for eight hours and run over small trees in their yard with the riding mower.
Several months after his accident, he stopped working, she says, and began a two and a half year period of visiting various specialists and undergoing occupational therapy.
In 2005, they lost their health insurance. Worker’s compensation checks paled in comparison to his salary. They began struggling to pay medical bills. Struggling to pay their mortgage. They almost lost their home. A credit counselor recommended bankruptcy.
Adding to the sorrow, her first husband died of a heart attack at the end of 2004.
“It was just,” she pauses, “depression in the family.”
“It was an eye-opening experience to be 40 years old and be going through all this and realizing, ‘What’s gonna happen?’ I mean, what about the kids? If I die today, what would happen?”
In 2007, her husband began working again, and at times, working too many hours. In 2009, he became overwhelmed, she says, and although she’s not sure either of them fully understands why, he left.
They’re still married, they still talk, she still loves him, and she doesn’t blame him for leaving. But he hasn’t come back.
She won’t give up hope that he’ll return. But even if he did, she says, he wasn’t going to be able to financially support them.
She started putting more thought and research into how she could open her farm, and when she read about the center’s program in the Boonville Daily News, she saw an opportunity.
So she talked to local farmers and looked into state grants. She researched the costs of growing new plants and raising chickens, and she says she has more than 20 area families interested in signing up for her to deliver organic produce, along with recipe suggestions. She also plans to set up shop at the local farmers market.
It will take a few years to purchase all the equipment she needs and establish herself, she says, but she aims to start planting fruit trees and berries on a plot of land separate from her garden in the spring. She has 20 acres, eight of which would be used for the farm.
She's excited about the challenge, but she never imagined she’d be in this situation. Never imagined she’d be building their farm alone.
Can someone with little work experience and no college education make this happen? She wasn’t sure at first, and she still worries about the costs associated with launching a business. But she’s confident in her own resilience, and she’s confident this is happening for a reason.
“I believe I can do this,” she says.
Nathaniel Brinkley smiles, leans back in his wheelchair and stares upward when he talks about getting back into the business. His gold ring with “DAD” inscribed across it flashes in the light as he rubs his hands together and recalls what lured him into the 20-year career he spent as a studio and sports photographer in California.
“When I was about 15, I stole one of my dad’s cameras.” He lets out a bashful laugh. “That’s when my love for photography started.”
But when Brinkley, 55, talks about how that love was taken from him, his eyes and his hands drop, his voice flattens and his excitement vanishes.
On a rainy day in the fall of 2003, Brinkley was on the roof of his home in San Bernardino, Calif., laying tarp to cover areas that had been damaged by drifting embers of a forest fire. He was placing sandbags to hold down the tarp, he says, when a sudden gust of wind swept across the roof. The tarp lifted, opening up like a parachute and sending him tumbling from atop his first story home.
“When I hit the ground, I knew that was it,” he says. “I knew I was going to have problems.”
He underwent surgery to fuse two disks in his back, spent two years in physical therapy, and wasn’t able to work. His two youngest children moved to Fayette, northwest of Columbia, to live with his oldest son.
By early 2006, his mobility and strength had returned, and he was ready to begin working again. His kids were enjoying life in Missouri, so he joined them in Fayette.
And that’s how, in fall 2006, Brinkley found himself sitting in the top row of a small set of bleachers in Marceline, watching his youngest son, a freshman, play his first football game for Fayette High School. About two minutes before halftime, he says, the bleachers rolled backward, tipping over and dropping him and six others on their backs.
More surgeries followed. Rods were inserted in his back and neck, and screws and a plate from a previous surgery had to be removed because they were damaged. More physical therapy. More misery.
Hopes of returning to work were dashed when Brinkley started losing his balance. He began using a wheelchair and ended up in a Section 8 apartment, with a pile of medical bills and only Social Security disability checks to live on.
“I was mad at the world,” he says.
When he heard about the center’s business start-up program, it was the first glimmer of hope he’d had in years, he says.
Through the class, he developed a plan to open a sports portrait photography business. Since much of sports photography is taken on location, he hopes he can run the business from his home. He plans on beginning to recruit local athletic teams and schools next summer.
If he makes enough money through sports photography, he wants to open a photo studio that’s entirely handicapped-accessible. Last year, when he went with his youngest son to have his senior pictures taken, he couldn’t get into several studios, he says. “Disabled people need photos, too.”
If he gets studio space, he'll begin advertising himself to facilities that care for people with disabilities.
He’s optimistic but knows it will be a challenge. He'll eventually need to raise enough money to rent space and possibly hire an employee or two. And although he has plenty of photo equipment, he needs a few upgrades.
“The technology has changed. It’s a lot more digital.” He laughs. “I don’t like digital.”
He’s got some work to do, but he’s lost the sadness, he says. He’s lost the anger. There is a future now.
“I know God has a plan for me,” he says. “I know he didn’t bring me this far just to let me slide back to nothing.”
He leans forward in his chair and gazes downward. His eyes are intense. “He has a plan for me.”
After losing a job for the third time, Paul Wooderson, 38, finally figured out what he wanted to do for a living.
Despite having years of experience working in health-care management and a master’s degree in health administration, Wooderson was laid off from positions as a clinic manager at a hospital in Texas, as a manager at a wheelchair company in Columbia and, lastly, as an administrator at a vein treatment center in Jefferson City in December 2010.
But an idea blossomed from his frustrations.
In the three months that lapsed before landing his current job as an insurance salesman with Aflac, Wooderson began developing his plan to create Networkplace, a website that helps unemployed people find temporary work.
Through the site, job seekers would create online profiles, free of charge, that advertise their skills. People looking for workers to fill a short-term job pay an annual or quarterly membership to access the site and search for ideal candidates. Once a job seeker completes work — it could be anything such as doing yard work or designing a website — the person who hired them leaves an online review of the work they did.
Thus, job seekers can build their feedback ratings to increase their chances of future short-term work, and they can display positive reviews to potential employers as evidence that they’ve been working despite being in between full-time jobs.
Being unemployed is as emotionally draining as it is financially, Wooderson says. “It’s worse than anything you hear on TV,” he adds. “I get tired of hearing (politicians) talk about it, to be honest, and act like they’re gonna do something about it.”
He hopes the site — which he'll launch by the end of the week — can help restore confidence for those who are searching for work. Any microloan money would go toward marketing and enhancing the website, he said.
“There’s not a whole lot between having a job and not having a job. There’s a gap right there,” he says. “This is intended to fill that.”
She knows it will be exhausting. And she knows it could fail. But after three years of thinking about it, after three years of scoping out vacant buildings and plotting inexpensive marketing strategies, Brenda Fant has decided it's time to open up her own coffeehouse.
A native of Macon, Fant, 42, has held a variety of jobs since moving to Columbia in 1987. For four years, she worked for the Columbia Forestry Department. For six years, she ran a small landscaping company. She bounced around but always returned to the same place: Lakota Coffee Co. She’s working her fourth stint at the coffeehouse, this time as general manager of its kiosk in University Hospital.
In 2008, her son, Alex, was born. Her relationship with his father deteriorated shortly afterward, she says, and he’s no longer in the picture. She and Alex live on an old flower farm in Ashland.
“We call him ‘Meatball,’” Fant says of her son. “He’s a handful. Being 42 and doing this on my own, it’s been quite the experience.”
Since Alex was born, she's wanted to open her own shop, and after three years of having her money tied up in day-to-day living and not being able to afford health insurance for herself, she decided it’s time to stop shying away from her idea.
She’s found the perfect location, she says, in an old, unoccupied butcher shop near downtown Ashland. She sat outside of it on a recent Tuesday morning to gauge the passing traffic. Between 6:30 and 8:10 a.m., she counted 722 cars driving by. She had to leave when Alex became restless.
To open the shop — she's aiming for next spring — she’d have to operate on a shoestring budget, and at first, probably wouldn’t have enough to hire employees.
Fant smiles at the notion of a “one-woman show,” but seems well aware of how overwhelming going at it alone could be.
“I try to mentally prepare,” she says. “Is it feasible? Raising what will be a 4-year-old and still taking care of myself mentally and physically?”
To help make it work, she says, she’ll probably create a loft space in her café for Alex to sleep in.
She has second-guesses, but says she tries to bury the negativity. “I’m a confirmed believer in you manifest what you think about,” she says. “And I’ve been a pretty good manifester.”
Jason Lewis was tired of feeling like he was replaceable. He’d worked for numerous banks and mortgage companies since graduating from MU in 2002, and in 2009, he was laid off from his job as a mortgage broker.
“Shortly after I lost my job,” he says, “It got to a point where I was like ‘Wow, I’m never gonna be happy unless I start my own business.’”
So Lewis, 33, went back to school. He’s taking prerequisite courses at Columbia College, in pursuit of a master’s degree in business sports management.
But there was a problem: During the first year of taking classes, with a wife and three kids to support, he couldn’t find work. He never considered himself at risk of sinking into poverty, but that’s exactly what happened.
He couldn’t pay the bills, and his family went on food stamps. He declared bankruptcy. “It was a humbling experience,” he says.
In November 2010, Lewis got a job selling insurance at AAA, and things slowly began to turn around. He’d been receiving various forms of financial assistance through the center, and when he heard about its business start-up program, he had an idea.
Two ideas, actually.
First thing’s first, he says, he needs to take care of his family. He’s trying to build his client base at AAA, and wants to use any microloan money to hire a sales assistant so he can spend more time recruiting clients. He hopes this can put him a step closer toward opening his own AAA office.
If he can reach a certain level of financial security, then he’ll go after his dream. Lewis has always had a passion for athletics. He played football at MU and coaches his kids’ sports teams, and he hopes to start a nonprofit youth sports league for low-income kids.
When he was growing up, he says, he couldn’t afford to play on an expensive club team, and he’s frustrated when he sees poorer kids being priced out of certain sports — and often priced out of having something to do during the summer.
He’s done some research and crunched some numbers, and his ideas will take time, money and manpower. But he’s found a direction, and he’s determined to follow it.
“I need to be able to get out there and make good money for my family,” he says, “and at the same time, do what I love to do, and that’s coaching.”