TAMPA PALMS —Britney Spears whips up a protein-packed smoothie in a blender as her customer waits. She runs through the ingredients in her head and smiles. • With just a month on the job at H.E.A.T. Nutrition and Tanning, she has had to quickly learn how to mix at least 30 kinds of smoothies — and run a business. • That's because Britney, 19, doesn't just work at the small shop in a Tampa Palms shopping plaza. She owns it. • There's no doubt that running a small businesses is tough. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that only half of small businesses survive beyond four years. • Add a 19-year-old high school graduate into the mix of owners and you wonder, what are the odds? But Britney is willing to take on the challenge. Considering what she's been through in her life, this is nothing.
Britney Spears was the star in her family well before the other Britney Spears became famous. She had a smile as spectacular as the sun and a personality that commanded a room.
Rick and Sheila Spears, high school sweethearts from Dover, were proud of their two girls. Older daughter Brandi made it all the way to Washington, D.C., as a local spelling bee champ. She sang beautifully in her church choir and was on track to graduate as class valedictorian.
In 1995, the family moved to Bowling Green, a small town 60 miles southeast of Tampa, because Rick Spears got an opportunity to take over as pastor at Fort Green Baptist Church. Sheila Spears worked as church secretary.
But their idyllic life was soon shattered. On the morning of Aug. 13, 1998, Sheila was driving the girls to school when a truck hit their car head-on. Sheila and Brandi were killed. Britney, who had been sitting in the back, was rushed to the hospital. She broke her right wrist, shattered her jaw in two places and lost eight teeth, including her front ones.
Doctors had to wire Britney's jaw shut and place her in an induced coma to heal. After four days, she awoke.
Rick Spears held his daughter in his lap.
"Baby, I have something I have to tell you," he said. "You have to promise me, you can't cry. And the reason you can't cry is because your jaw is sewed together. If you get sick, I'll have to break your jaw loose with my bare hands, because you will die if you throw up."
He told her about her mother and sister. Then he held her in his lap for a long time as silent tears cascaded down her cheeks.
• • •
Rick Spears began the agonizing process of packing up Brandi's bedroom. Everything made him cry, from the feel of her clothes to the academic trophies. He performed the task only at night, after Britney had gone to bed, and he did it only for a few moments at a time because the grief would overwhelm him.
He always mourned quietly because he had told Britney to be strong that day in the hospital. So he needed to be, too.
One night, as he sat on the floor in Brandi's room, which she had decorated with crystals from a school science project, he cried his heart out — as quietly as he could.
Suddenly, he felt a small hand slip into his.
He turned to find Britney's sad eyes looking up at him.
"Dad, we're going to be all right."
• • •
A month after the accident, father and daughter left Bowling Green and moved back to Dover so Britney could grow up near her mother's family.
Rick Spears remarried and had two more children. Despite their new life, many days were punctuated with sorrow.
Something as seemingly mundane as a trip to the mall flooded their hearts with grief and brought on panic attacks.
"You know it's going to be tough on birthdays and holidays. You can prepare for that," he said. "But when you're walking through the mall, and somebody walks by having that look, that hair, that smell, that laugh, it brings back all of the emotions."
Britney started to question whether there was a God. Her dad made her go to church.
She wanted pigtails, but her dad failed horribly and had to pass the task over to her mom's best friend.
Through it all, father and daughter stuck by each other, leaned against each other for strength and continued to grieve together.
"(Britney and I) have come to understand that in the end, no matter who else comes into our world, there will always be two of us," he said. "We walk in a very dark place."
No matter what Britney decided, Spears urged his daughter on. She never got into trouble and was always wise beyond her years. She didn't go to clubs and she didn't party. She worked hard as a waitress at Steak 'N Shake and went to the beach with girlfriends.
She thought about being a teacher until a business economics class at Plant City High School ignited something inside her.
"Deep down, I've always wanted to be a business owner. But deep down, I thought it wouldn't be possible," she said. "But in this economics class, everything was laid out, all of the basics about how to manage a business. I knew I could do it."
Britney sought help from Legacy Venture Group Inc., a business brokerage firm in Riverview, to help her find the right business to buy. Using money she had saved as a waitress, money she received on holidays and an inheritance from her mother, she took over ownership of H.E.A.T. Nutrition & Tanning in June.
She chose the business because it's a happy place.
"Everybody that walks in here wants to be here," Britney said. "I want to be in that environment."
Britney works six days a week, overseeing three employees. She enjoys learning about how to run a small business and getting to know her customers.
She smiles at each one of them. What they don't know is that she wears a partial on her upper gums, which is like a retainer with teeth. She pops the retainer in each day to fill in the top row. She has learned how to conceal her bottom row of teeth, which has a 1-inch gap.
Her uncle is a dentist and could have restored her smile years ago. But she refuses to get it fixed. This smile is better. It says her mom and her sister are with her.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.