Tedi Ellis didn’t think she would find her calling in a business.
She came to MU to earn a degree in social work, not to run a children’s entertainment center.
When she found a job as a social worker with the state of Missouri after college, she also discovered what she didn’t want to do.
"I hated it," Ellis said. "It just wore me down."
Through Tiger Bounce, with its active play equipment for children's parties, "I found my purpose."
Tiger Bounce takes kids' pleasures seriously, offering a space where they can run, jump, slide, ride, climb, skate and eat pizza.
"We do basically everything in the children’s entertainment world," Ellis said.
It’s a run-around-in-your-socks kind of place, open to kids under 13. Away from the hubbub of inflatable slides and climbing challenges, there’s a toddlers-only "VIP" area, too.
Tiger Bounce also offers party packages, ranging from party rooms to private rentals of the entire facility.
While Tiger Bounce, 3601 Buttonwood Drive, isn’t the only indoor entertainment destination in Columbia, Ellis said it’s the sheer number of options for play that draws families to her business.
"It’s always so exciting for my kids to see what’s new and different," wrote parent Daniela Dupree in a Google review.
When it’s time to make an addition, Ellis said she asks one question: "How can we keep our kids entertained and bring them back to the original (idea of) childhood?"
That idea appeals to parents wanting to see their kids engaged with something other than a screen, Ellis said. There are "no electronics" at Tiger Bounce, she said. "Just old-fashioned fun."
Ellis, who purchased the business in 2018, is the third owner of Tiger Bounce. When the center opened in 2014, it was something new and original in Columbia.
Lately, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for indoor play facilities — lots of kids in close quarters with many shared surfaces.
"There’s really not a great plan in place to keep kids separate," Ellis said. "You just can’t in bounce houses. We can’t enforce social distancing."
Children and pre-teens aren’t necessarily going to follow additional safety regulations, either.
"We can ask kids to wear masks," Ellis said. "But when they’re playing, they don’t want to keep them on."
Despite her financial struggles, new ways of operating — and a little boost from others — have kept Tiger Bounce afloat. A GoFundMe campaign set up to help earlier this year brought in over $1,000.
Much of Tiger Bounce’s current business is coming from private party and play date rentals, which provide a smaller, more controlled environment for play. And, of course, there’s a lot of sanitizing.
But with Ellis’ indefinite suspension of open admission play, there’s still uncertainty.
"It’s definitely been a struggle," she said. "We’re nowhere near operating like we used to."
Nonetheless, Ellis is optimistic about the future of her business.
Further expansion of the strip mall off Nifong Boulevard that Tiger Bounce calls home will be an option. The facility added 2,000 square feet in January, she said.
There's likely to be more expansion in the future, Ellis said.
"As many attractions as we can keep up is the goal," she said. "COVID definitely set us back on that goal, but it’s definitely still what we want to do."
And even though her goal wasn't necessarily to own a business, Ellis has found something she loves in Tiger Bounce. Her experience working with children in difficult home situations as a social worker led Ellis to a building full of fun.
"When I got this opportunity to see this other side of childhood and see kids happy and celebrating birthdays, of course I jumped at the opportunity," she said.
Ellis grew up in the St. Louis area in a family she called the type that "definitely didn’t own businesses or things like that."
And now she’s got a business of her own, even if she didn’t expect to end up there.
"It’s not exactly what I went to school for and definitely not what I got my degrees in," Ellis said. "But it’s definitely where I think I found my purpose."