WESLEY CHAPEL — It wasn't easy.
But Anthony Mayes was desperate the day he sat down and spilled the embarrassing details of his family's financial meltdown to strangers on the Internet.
"Honestly, I have never asked for help for myself," the 39-year-old husband and father of two wrote. "I have never said a prayer for myself only and always for others . . . This time, I/we need help."
The former mortgage banker and information technology employee revealed how things got so bad after he got laid off from several jobs. He said he even applied for work at the McDonald's near his home but couldn't get hired. Meanwhile he had fallen behind in paying the mortgage on his 1,557-square-foot home.
In the end, Mayes' candor paid off.
His letter, sent to the Wesley Chapel-based financial and social networking site www.TraderPlanet.com, earned him two months of mortgage payments as the winner of the Web site's economic stimulus package contest.
The 7-month-old site, which has been described as a "Facebook for traders," launched the contest in March as news of job losses and mortgage foreclosures dominated the headlines.
It was a new twist for the site, which had previously sponsored contests that had members guessing where the Dow would go at the end of a month or predicting stock prices for certain Valentine's Day-related industries such as Victoria's Secret and Hershey's.
Trader Planet's 29-year-old founder, Lane Mendelsohn, got the idea while working out with a friend at a local gym.
"He said people aren't thinking about lingerie and chocolate. They're thinking about losing their house. I said, 'I'm game.' "
Contestants were asked to share personal stories via letter or video about how the mortgage crisis had affected them and why they deserved to win. The site's 10,000 registered members, along with a panel of judges, would choose the winners by rating their stories on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. The grand prize? A check to cover two months' worth of mortgage payments. The second-place winner got the mortgage covered for one month. Third place got $250. Winners had to submit proof of their mortgages.
About 30 entries were received, coming from as far away as Belgium.
Taking 'a big step'
Mayes, who was among the first to submit his story, got an overall rating of 4.44 from the 2,000 members who judged, making him the first local winner of a Trader Planet contest. He squeaked past the second-place winner, a woman from North Port in Sarasota County who got rated at 4.24. Third place went to a Columbus, Ind., man whose story rated 3.75.
On Wednesday, Mendelsohn and his staff piled into his mother's recreational vehicle and drove to Mayes' tan stucco home in the Grand Oaks neighborhood to present him with balloons, champagne and two $2,994.52 checks — a ceremonial oversized check and another that he can cash at the bank.
Mayes described the win as "bittersweet" because he'd rather have been in a better financial position.
"It was a big step to actually seek some help," he said.
Mayes entered on a tip from an employee at his bank, who apparently noticed his deposits drying up.
He has restructured his payments several times and stays about a month behind.
"This will get me caught up," he said of the prize.
Mayes said he never thought the economic recession could affect him so severely. When the mortgage industry started to decline, he and his family began downsizing their lifestyle. They exchanged their 3,000-square-foot home for one about half the size. They cut out cable TV. They eventually became a one-car household and used public transit as a backup.
"We had a plan," he said.
But layoff after layoff sabotaged that. At one point, Mayes took an information technology job for an Atlanta company, commuting more than 800 miles round trip. He got laid off there, too.
Now he's handling loans and IT jobs here and there to scrape by. His wife, Tina Marie, works as a bank teller. She used to be able to stay home with their son, Anthony, 7, and daughter, Hannah, 4.
"Now she doesn't have a choice," he said.
But Mayes refuses to give up. On Wednesday, he sent eight resumes to ads on monster.com.
"I'll work anywhere," he said, "even if it means I have to live in the no-tell motel and come home on the weekends."
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.