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Given freedom to grow, teen nurtures entrepreneurial spirit

NORTH PORT

Monday morning, a school day, after the bell has rung. Willow Tufano jumps up and down on the trampoline in her back yard, trying to land her hot pink Osiris sneakers on a flipping skateboard.

After a while, she drops on her back, staring up at the periwinkle sky, her purple- and pink-dyed hair forming a starburst around her on the black trampoline.

From the lanai, her mom breaks her reverie.

"Willow, are you ready to go? Do you have a plan of what you really want to do today?"

"Somewhat," she answers.

Willow, 15, thinks. She has to make her weekly trip to Goodwill for items she can sell. She has to stop by a foreclosed house to pick up a foosball table that she might put on Craigslist. She has to trade some scooter parts at the skateboard park.

Her mom prods her.

"Do you have to go to your house?" her mother asks. "To put up a For Sale sign?"

 

//

More than a year ago, when she was 14, Willow bought her first house. Her parents say it was her idea. They were at the dinner table and her mom, who is a real estate broker, was telling her husband they should invest in a $12,000 short sale in Port Charlotte.

Willow piped up: "Could I help buy the house?"

Willow's parents knew she was a unique kid. She had banked more than $6,000, money she had earned selling what most people would consider junk. Video games. Electronics. Used appliances. Furniture. Bike and scooter parts. But a house? Fourteen-year-olds didn't buy houses, Willow's father said.

But her mom, Shannon Moore, who perhaps saw something of herself in Willow, liked the idea. It could be a homeschool project, she thought.

Soon, Willow gave her mom $6,000 in cash. (The property was in her mother's name; you can't own property until you are 18.) Later, Willow gave her another $2,000. They rented the house for $650 a month and split the money. Willow gave her mother her portion of that — about $5,200 so far — for the remainder of the house and renovations. It worked so well that nine months later, they bought a second house together, a two-bedroom in Port Charlotte for $18,000.

Willow's entrepreneurial skills got her noticed. NPR was interviewing her mother for a story on the real estate market when Moore said something like: "When a 14-year-old can buy a house ..." Willow went on to give 84 interviews, everything from South Korean TV to CNN. She appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Ellen told her she was an inspiration.

In this era of kids who can barely operate the washing machine, Willow is certainly unusual. But whom exactly is she inspiring? Other kids to get off the couch? Or parents to step back and give their kids more control over their lives?

 

//

Willow is the middle of three sisters — one a tween, the other in college, both of whom annoy her for different reasons. She has a couple of ferrets and is obsessed with Lady Gaga and, lately, Paris Jackson. She recently opined on Twitter, her newest obsession: "Am I the only one while watching a movie and two people kiss — I'm like ohhhh you kiss like THAT."

She's not an angel and she can be mouthy.

"What did I ask you to do, Willow?" her mother says.

"You asked me to get the box out of the car or else it's off with my head," Willow replies.

But when she starts talking about her deals, as she calls them, she's all business. She seems to have an intuitive sense of an item's resale value and the market instincts of a seasoned merchant. Kids seek her out for scooter and bike parts, gaming systems and surfing accoutrements. She once sold a bunk bed she found on the side of the road for $250.

She has had this affinity for making money since she was 6 years old, when she wanted all the kids in the class to donate their Christmas money to an animal shelter. Later, when she was 13, she made $400 at a garage sale she held with items left behind in a house her mother was selling. Soon she was begging family members for rides to pick up free stuff she'd found on Craigslist or to hit garbage pickup days in wealthy neighborhoods.

Her bank account swelled.

But as well-matched as Willow was for the world of commerce, she was an equally poor fit with traditional school. She was always getting into trouble, most likely because of her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In 2010, Willow's mom gave her the option of taking her courses online with the Florida Virtual School. She makes A's and B's.

Moore, a scrappy, trim 40-year-old in a pencil skirt and peep-toe stilettos, has an entrepreneurial side herself. She used to scavenge for $10 Armani suits at Salvation Army, then resell them on eBay for $150. She got a Realtor's license and flipped vacant lots, then dealt in foreclosed houses. She brought Willow along on a lot of these deals, and it rubbed off.

Willow's Dad, Tony, says he wasn't comfortable with Willow buying houses at first. "But then I saw her at one of these garage sales. She wouldn't let anyone push her around and it really impressed me."

 

//

Willow and her mom hit up Goodwill first. Here, Willow's mother doesn't have to tell her what to do. The two of them scan bins full of shoes, walkers, karaoke machines, keyboards — all under $5.

"What about that University of Miami hat?" her mom asks. Sports memorabilia sells.

"No, it's not flat," Willow says, referring to the curved brim. "No one will buy that."

Willow joins a group of shoppers waiting for more bins to emerge from a door in the back. They attack the bins like birds on an animal carcass. Willow finds the guitar component of a Guitar Hero video game for $1 and a pet carrier for $2. Later, she will sell each of them for $20 apiece.

At the cash register she pulls a wallet from her backpack. It's so stuffed with bills, it doesn't fold.

 

//

At Bank of America, Willow heads to the table with the deposit slips. She's sucking on a red lollipop. She pulls out her wallet. She's stacking the $1 bills in uneven piles. She keeps losing her place.

"I'm so bad at counting," she says.

"Would you like to use our counting machine?" a teller offers.

Willow smiles, relieved. She hands the woman the messy stack of bills. A few minutes later the woman returns with a total: $775.

Willow gives $400 to her mother to send to a Sandy Hook relief fund and adds the rest to the $2,526.51 she has in her account.

 

//

In the car, Willow's mom shoves her phone at her daughter.

"We have to call code enforcement and have them go back to your house, and you're going to talk to the lady," Moore says.

Willow takes the phone and pulls her retainer out so she doesn't sound, as she puts it, "like an idiot."

"Ah, I need someone to come over to my house to get it reinspected," she says into the phone, in her chirpy voice.

This house is the second one Moore and Willow purchased together. Turns out it needs more work than they might want to put into it and now they're thinking of selling it again. Moore suggests they price tile before making the decision.

But Willow is looking at her phone. "Every single Dillon I know is really cool," she says.

"Willow, concentrate."

She looks up.

"If we can make $10,000 on the house, you get $5,000 and I get $5,000," Moore says.

They are already talking about a new deal — a beach vacation rental that Moore had seen for $299,000 on Palm Island. They wouldn't have to worry so much about struggling renters, damaged property. They could make $2,200 a week.

"We would probably have to sell both your houses," Moore says.

Willow is unsure. She likes her first house. They discuss how much she'd have to come up with, taxes and insurance. "I'm not sure I could raise $80,000," Willow says. "I could probably get you $45,000."

"You need to decide if you are in or out," Moore says.

 

//

Moore pulls her Acura into Lowe's. In the tile department, she makes Willow figure out how much they will need and how much it will cost. Math is, ironically, not Willow's strong suit. With a little help from the salesman, she comes back with a figure: $1,400.

Moore frowns. It might be time to sell. Willow nods.

 

//

As soon as they pull up to the concrete-block Port Charlotte house, Willow whips a scooter out of the back of the car and whizzes up and down the street. Later, she brings it inside the house and tries a flipping move on the tile floors.

"Willow, you are getting distracted," her mother tells her. "This is your deal."

"I'm getting the sign," Willow says. "Well, actually, I wasn't, but now I am."

She sticks the For Sale sign in the grass.

 

//

Not every parent has the time or the inclination to let her daughter take classes at home.

But there's another side to the parenting style Moore has adopted for Willow that is worth acknowledging. As much as she prods her and guides her to stay on task, Moore also gives her teenager freedom to make her own choices.

Willow can dye her hair any color she wants. She can ride her bike 7 miles and catch a bus to Sarasota — all by herself. She can sell her bed as many times as she wants and wear a spiked bra to a Lady Gaga concert.

It's not the way most parents raise their children. But perhaps there's something to it.

Lenore Skenazy thinks so. She is a former New York City columnist who back in 2008 was dubbed "America's worst mom" because her 9-year-old kid asked to take the subway home alone and she let him.

"It's possible that 14-year-olds could do amazing things if we didn't treat them like babies," says Skenazy, now the author of a book called Free-Range Kids. "I feel like, in the last 20 years in particular, we're treating children ever more gingerly. They can't do anything for themselves."

This more "privileged generation" never takes risks, says Jeffrey Gardere, a psychologist and parenting specialist in New York.

"We need to see if we can step back a little bit," he says, "and trust our kids a little bit more."

Moore knows firsthand what happens when parents don't encourage a child's independence.

Her oldest daughter, now 20, is a talented artist and attends New College. She has never held a job. Her debit card is linked to her mother's account.

 

//

One day three weeks ago, Willow and her Mom took a short ferry ride over to Palm Island.

They were selling Willow's other investments and had made an $8,000 profit on one house and were hoping to clear $35,000 on the other. Willow had pooled her part of that money and other cash she raised to buy a one-quarter share of the vacation rental with her parents.

They were closing in a week and had learned the air conditioner was broken.

This time, Moore got on the phone to track down a repairman. While they waited, mother and daughter took a walk on the beach, collecting shark teeth and shells. Willow found a living starfish and got her sneakers wet tossing it gently back in the gulf.

Back at the house, Moore was on the phone again, and Willow sat on the porch, absorbed by her Twitter feed. She posts dozens of times a day, sharing her every thought with Lady Gaga fans around the world.

"I SAVED A STARFISH'S LIFE TODAY."

Given freedom to grow, teen nurtures entrepreneurial spirit 07/03/13 [Last modified: Thursday, July 4, 2013 11:53am]
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