SAFETY HARBOR – Nine years ago, Isabella Yosuico’s second son was born with Down Syndrome. Like many such children, Isaac had a condition that causes poor muscle tone.
“When he was a baby, he was really floppy," Yosuico said. “I ran on a treadmill and had wrist and ankle weights and I thought, gee, why couldn’t he use little weights?’’
Yosuico began tinkering with baby fleece and sandbox sand, enlisting women from her church to sew prototypes of kid-size weights. She sent them to hospitals around the country, including Johns Hopkins All Children’s in St. Petersburg, and received encouraging feedback. State officials in West Virginia, where she lived then, were so enthusiastic they loaned her $200,000.
Thus was born Mighty Tykes Infant & Child Weights.
At first, the business seemed to flourish. West Virginia’s governor held up a pair of the weights at his State of the State address. The Associated Press did a story about the “mighty mom.'' Via Amazon, Mighty Tykes were sold all over the world.
But Yosuico couldn’t come close to selling 10,000 sets as officials optimistically projected. Three years ago, with the loans in default, she shut the business and moved with her family to Safety Harbor.
It was to be a fresh start. Then in 2017, Yosuico and husband Ray were hit with a lawsuit demanding they repay the money. An attorney they hired bungled the case to the point he is now under investigation by the Florida Bar. And the Yosuicos are still dealing with the fallout.
Along the way, she learned a lesson she’s passing along to other entrepreneurs:
“Be faithful to your vision. My idea was not Nike, I just wanted to have a lifestyle business where I could take care of my family and have the kids stuff packages in the basement. Then I got seduced by this grand vision.’’
During their 13 years in West Virginia, the Yosuicos lived in Berkeley Springs — she calls it the “Safety Harbor of the Hills’’ because of its artsy, small-town flavor. Ray worked as an addiction counselor, she as a freelance writer.
First came Pierce, then Isaac. Yosuico learned from a therapist that muscle weakness afflicts not just children with Down Syndrome but also those with cerebral palsy and many other conditions.
Yosuico fashioned some weights for her son. The therapist was impressed.
"Those are really good,'' she told Yosuico. “They could help a lot of kids and you should try to make them.”’
The Small Business Development Center in Berkeley Springs gave Yosuico’s contact information to state officials. One was especially bullish on the weights, dismissing her concerns that there would be a limited demand for them.
"You’re way underestimating yourself,'' he said. "This is a really good product, you’ve got a good story.''’
Yosuico wanted to do a test run of the weights. Only if it was successful would she take the full $200,000 state officials were pressing on her. “But they said, ‘No, it’s time to put on your big girl pants.’ ’’ In 2014, she and her husband signed the loan papers with their personal guarantee to repay.
Mighty Tykes, made by a small Pennsylvania factory, came in three sizes and were brightly packaged with Isaac’s picture on front. Therapists used them at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and play centers run by Lekotek, a nonprofit organization. A Colorado mother liked the weights so much she agreed that her child’s picture could be featured in advertising.
Yosuico ultimately sold 1,700 sets of Mighty Tykes, far less than state projections. But officials “continued trotting us out as sort of a success story even though I was killing myself and not making any money,’’ she said.
The couple paid down about $5,000 on the loans before defaulting. Yosuico said state officials provided little support to the business; they dispute that.
“The idea that we handed this over and said ‘It’s all yours’ is totally inaccurate,' ’’ said Andrew Zulauf, executive director of the West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust.
He said Yosuico stymied the state’s “repeated attempts’’ to modify the loans and refused efforts to bring in a third party as an investor or to run the company. Yosuico said she was the one who suggested a third party take over, calling the state’s modification offers “basically all downside for me and upside for them.''
By 2016, the Yosuicos were ready to move. They were frustrated about Mighty Tykes and also thought West Virginia, a poor state, lacked the educational resources Isaac would need as he grew older.
They decided to go to Florida, figuring Ray could find a job in one of its many addiction treatment facilities. They bought a small condominium in Safety Harbor.
After the West Virginia jobs agencies sued them, Yosuico retained Michael Brundage, a Safety Harbor lawyer, to try to renegotiate the loan terms. In case that didn’t work, he gave them some blank bankruptcy forms to fill out although "we were very reluctant to file for bankruptcy because apart from the Mighty Tykes loans, we had excellent credit and little debt,'' Yosuico said.
In January, the couple were stunned to get a notice from the United States Trustee’s office of the bankruptcy court in Tampa. The trustee, part of the Department of Justice, wanted to examine their financial records and question them under oath.
That’s when the Yosuicos discovered Brundage had filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in their names although they had never authorized him to do so.
"I confronted Mike and sat in his conference room with Isaac for two hours until he filed several documents to fix what he had done,'' Yosuico said.
The trustee’s office found that Brundage violated several bankruptcy rules and fined him $500. The Yosuicos hired another lawyer, who got the Chapter 13 case dismissed and then filed a Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy. In October, they were discharged of their debts, wiping out the West Virginia loans but also causing them to lose the house they still owned in Berkeley Springs. On Brundage’s advice they had stopped paying the mortgage last year and were too far in arrears by October to save the house.
Brundage acknowledges he made "a series of mistakes’' but said, "it wasn’t as heinous as it sounds.''
"I don’t think the path I set them on was the wrong path,'' he said. Had the Chapter 13 case continued, the Yosuicos could have set up a repayment plan to catch up on their mortgage and keep the house. The plan could have required them, however, to pay at least part of their other debts, including the West Virginia loans.
West Virginia officials say there is nothing they can do now to collect the $200,000 the Yosuicos owed. Under other circumstances, they say, Mighty Tykes might have been a success.
"We thought enough of the product that we could take a risk to grow this company,'' said Zulauf of the jobs investment trust. "When things got tough and we were willing to work with her, she moved out.''
In what Zulauf calls a "scorched earth'' letter, Yosuico wrote to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice last year. She blasted economic development officials and asked that the loans be forgiven. Yosuico said she never heard back from Justice or any of the others she wrote to.
"I do think they were aware they had no business lending us that kind of money, then leaving us twisting in the wind,'' she said. "The state just isn’t equipped to support a business like mine.''
Yosuico said she still hopes to revive the business in some form although under another name — perhaps Mighty Lytes.