People laid off in Tampa Bay use the time to chase their dreams

Mark Weaver walked in the door at 3 p.m. that day.

"You're home early," observed his wife, Andrea. "That's weird."

He brushed it off at first. He didn't want to scare the kids, plus, how do you find the words? He got through dinner, and put the kids to bed.

Then he went into the bedroom of their spacious Tarpon Springs house and sat beside his wife to watch the news.

He almost never did that.

"So," he said. "About being home early. …"

Laid off. The two words didn't come easy.

Andrea's mouth went slack. Her husband had the marketing job at Raymond James for 12 years. She is a high school teacher. What about the kids? The mortgage? What would Christmas look like?

Mark Weaver, 39, had severance, savings and a choice. He could re-enter the corporate world, a place that felt like swimming through molasses even before the ax fell.

"You can work long hours, you can work hard, but at the end of the day you're getting the same paycheck and there's no job security," he said.

Or he could take a gamble on something else.

• • •

Let's be clear. Getting laid off is not a wistful, dreamy thing. It's terrible. It takes away livelihood and self-esteem and sometimes, food on the table.

Florida unemployment is at 11 percent, the highest in at least 10 years. The job market is just as bleak. So what happens when you become one of the statistics?

You have free time. Free time creates chances.

Some people, like Mark Weaver, take them.

Instead of donning a suit and a tie, he now puts on khaki shorts and a bright blue polo and drives to a 9,800-square-foot building on Race Track Road in Tampa called Jump!Zone. He flips on a blower and brings to life a giant Batman and a SpongeBob Squarepants and a pirate ship 40 feet long. He throws birthday parties for kids who squeal with glee when he opens double doors to reveal his puffy playland.

"I've always wanted to have my own business," Weaver said. "It's something I've wanted ever since I was in college."

Losing his job gave him more time with his kids. They inspired him to think about a business for children.

The family got a small business loan, then lost it when the bank got nervous. With savings and credit cards, they moved forward. Andrea Weaver, 38, kept her job as an English teacher at Palm Harbor University High School but spent her nights at Jump!Zone. The kids practically lived there, too.

They opened three months ago. Business has been slow but steadily growing. They hope to be out of the red next year.

"If it's something you want to do," said Andrea, "you make it work."

But how do you chase a dream and still pay for health care? If you're single and don't have savings like the Weavers, how do you survive?

Sara Buckley taught music at Clearwater's Kings Highway Elementary on a temporary contract when it ran out during a district hiring freeze.

She found herself unemployed, uninsured, and unable to pay for MRIs on a benign liver tumor that doctors wanted to watch. She moved out of her apartment and into a Tarpon Springs condominium with a friend.

She cobbles together about $15,000 a year teaching voice lessons around the Tampa Bay area, much less than her former $40,000 salary.

It's the tightest things have ever been.

But here's the twist.

"I've never been so happy," she said.

Using student loans, Buckley, 38, enrolled in graduate school at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She hopes to graduate in 2011 and become a journalist.

"Basically, I've just embraced this as an opportunity. I won't say I'm more serious, because I'm always playful about life, but I think I'm driven. I'm excited to add more skills to my life. I'm adding to my life, instead of just. ...''

She paused.

"I embraced hope."

• • •

Joe Sale was an account executive at Robert Half Technology, where he wore a tie to work. It kept flopping around, getting in his coffee.

In his free time, he invented a tie that attached to shirt buttons with space to store business cards and an iPod in the back. He showed it off around the office. People were impressed.

In 2008, his job was cut. He immediately went to a patent attorney.

The iTie was born.

"Sometimes times are tough," he said. "But other times, it leads to bigger opportunities."

Sale, 32, single and living near Westchase, appeared on the television show Pitchmen starring Anthony Sullivan and the late Billy Mays. The iTie wasn't right for the show, but the stars liked it so much they taped a free commercial for Sale. It's still on his Web site.

The iTies range from $20 to $80. He said he sells enough to match his old salary of $60,000 with commission. He hopes to work with Home Shopping Network and get a licensing agreement with a large manufacturer. He has some new product ideas, too.

Still, he'd take a job if one came along.

"My intention was to find another job full time," he said. "That certainly didn't happen. I still continually look for something, another opportunity where I can still do the iTie, but it's just the way the market is."

Mike Mayo of Wesley Chapel didn't even want to try. He was laid off as an account manager with Green Mountain Coffee in May.

"It was kind of like, what now?" he said. "I'm 53. Going back into the workplace and trying to compete with these young kids would be so tough."

Instead, he and his wife used savings to start Golden Vision Photography, taking professional photos of people's pets and animal events in the area. Their golden retriever, Lexi, is the company mascot, modeling pensively on a length of silver taffeta on their Web site.

In July, Mayo won the 2009 Tampa Bay Small Business Jumpstart contest. He received $26,000 in business tools, like accounting, marketing, printing and phone answering services.

"I feel great, actually," he said. "I know the business is going to work, and being able to do something that you really enjoy, being around pets all day and being able to work with people who love their pets, it's great. No matter what job you have, there are certain things you don't like. But in this one, I haven't found it yet."

• • •

Jump!Zone demands long, taxing hours from Mark Weaver. His weekends are history. Money is tight.

Last week, he took his son to a doctor near Raymond James for an outpatient procedure. He ran over to the Publix where he used to get sandwiches on his lunch break. He saw a line of guys waiting for subs, plastic company badges hanging from their belts. That used to be me, he thought.

"Even though the hours are long and stressful, that's when it dawned on me," he said. "It's where I need to be."

He felt free.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

People laid off in Tampa Bay use the time to chase their dreams 11/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2009 1:55pm]

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