Fresh Starts

Meet a few people who have greeted challenging circumstances as opportunities for a new kind of success.

Sure, we know the economy is bad and unemployment is on the rise. But there are people who see tough conditions as impetus for positive change. “Some people embrace it,” says Barry Schlecker, owner of The Network Group, a Wilmington-based job referral agency. “I tell my clients when they get laid off to look at it as an opportunity to carve out what they want to do and go look for it.” Says Bill Pfaff, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Delaware in Georgetown, “The current state of the economy is breeding the new entrepreneur.” Meet a few folks who’ve met challenging times without flinching.

Photograph by Tom NutterMassaging His Cares Away

Late in the morning at Foulkstone Plaza in North Wilmington, Eric Zoeckler sits in the middle row of Victoria Bowering’s Massage Therapy Class at the Harris School of Business, learning about the posterior deltoid, the splenius cervicis and other components of our anatomy.

Zoeckler flips through a physiology textbook as Bowering lectures before a plastic skeleton. Zoeckler is in the second semester of a seven-semester course needed for certification in therapeutic massage, which requires 600 hours of instruction, national board testing and a local licensing exam.

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Only a few months ago, taking a class and learning a new career was unthinkable. For years, Zoeckler was an information technology consultant who worked with clients in the pharmaceutical and banking industries. He was paid well for it. In the early part of the decade, Zoeckler was earning a salary well into six figures. He owned a lovely home in the Cool Springs neighborhood of Wilmington. He drove a Mercedes.

Over the next three years, he watched IT jobs migrate to foreign countries. He saw the IT industry become less of a profession and more of a service, a quick hotline call rather than a continuing business relationship. He saw hourly rates for consultants dwindle. Zoeckler took a 15 percent pay cut to join a Wilmington bank. Soon after, it was announced that all consultants would receive another 15 percent salary decrease. His last consulting job was with a major bank in New Castle County, which said it would not renew his contract once it expired. Zoeckler, then 41, was downsized out in January.

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He had spent 17 years as an executive whose advice was sought by company leaders. Now, for the first time since he was 13, Zoeckler was unemployed. “Do I continue to find an IT job, struggling to make a living in a field that’s become a commodity-based service?” he says. “Or do I look at this time as a gift, to broaden my horizons outside of the box I’d been limiting myself to?”

Zoeckler began poring through online publications and scanned the classifieds. In an economy that had gone topsy-turvy, there they were: dozens of healthcare jobs listed every day. At the same time, Zoeckler joined the YMCA and began talking with trainers, many of whom were pursuing dual careers in massage therapy. Due in large part to their influence, he made the commitment, three slim months after being laid off, to pursue a position as a fitness trainer and massage therapist. Within the next year, after he receives certification in both, Zoeckler would like to open a personal fitness studio in Wilmington.

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While crossing the bridge to his next career, Zoeckler’s life is very different than it once was. He lives on his savings. He has given up many of the luxuries a six-figure salary can bring. The flip side, he says, is that he spends more time with his two sons, and the four days a week he now spends in the classroom has revealed to Zoeckler a side of himself that he did not use much of in the corporate world. “I had trained myself in business to act with a certain detached decorum around others,” he says. “I’m finding that I’m becoming more caring about people’s needs and less caring about budgets and schedules.”

As the massage therapy class inches toward noon, Bowering points to a spot on the skeleton’s shoulder and asks the class to identify what tissue of the human body occupies the area. Zoeckler answers correctly. “It’s the supraspinatus facia.”

“Were I allowed to think about a new career when I was in IT, I probably wouldn’t have done anything,” Zoeckler says. “But time is a gift, and what it’s teaching me is that I have the will and the ability to put my hands on someone and through learned techniques, give that person permanent benefits.”

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Photograph by Tom NutterLooking for Clues

Christine Giffin, a chemist in the forensic sciences laboratory in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Wilmington, attaches code numbers to the bottled samples taken from a deceased 35-year-old white male, whose autopsy was performed two days before. She measures the volume of urine and eye fluid. She weighs the brain.

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Four people from the department—a supervisor, a lab technician and two analytical chemists—have recently left for other jobs, so Giffin and her four coworkers are doubling their efforts, which includes the exacting process of logging in specimens. But there is the issue of the 35-year-old man, and the Delaware medical examiner wants Giffin’s department to determine what may have caused his death.

To anyone but a chemist, the evidence seems plain. After all, it’s right there on the report: The subject was suffering from chronic alcohol abuse and had cirrhosis of the liver. It’s not that simple, however. Over the next several days, Giffin and her colleagues will put the man’s specimens through a battery of tests and technology to find any one of 11 compounds that may have been present in the man’s body. Giffin’s job is about alkaline screenings and DUI and post-mortem analysis in a lab filled with beakers and test tubes and chemical data, and it is a world she has known most of her life. 

It is not certain whether Giffin’s career was preordained, but her father was a high school chemistry teacher, and by the age of 10, Christine had her own chemistry set and had measured the acidity levels of practically everything in her childhood home. “I remember turning water red and taking litmus paper and testing the pH levels of things around the house,” Giffin says. “I’ve always had a love of animals and was a pre-veterinary major in college, but I chose a career in chemistry because that’s what I truly love.”

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A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Giffin, 37, graduated from Gannon College. She moved to Delaware in 1995 to work as a synthetic chemist at the DuPont Company. Four years later, after a round of cutbacks eliminated her position, she became a quality assurance chemist at AstraZeneca where, for the next eight years, she tested compounds for purity before they were released on the market. In late 2007 she was approached by her supervisor, who said that planned cutbacks by the company would likely include her.

She decided to seek a new position. Giffin saw a few openings for chemists at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. She interviewed, was offered her choice of positions, and chose forensic sciences. She was anxious about making the large leap from quality assurance to forensics—as well as a 20 percent cut in salary—“but it was still chemistry, and I’ve always been so drawn to forensics, the mystery of it, and the chance to help solve equations,” she says.

“Sometimes you just need to take a gamble,” she says. “I’ve sacrificed for where I am, but sometimes you’re put in a position where you have to make a change, but the fact is that the change I had to make has enabled me to find something I love to do.”

Giffin is developing ways for the department to conduct more in-house analysis, but case studies take priority over research. Giffin and her co-workers mostly analyze DUI cases, but also work on vehicular homicide cases, suicides, infant fatalities, deaths from overdose and occasional rape cases. She doesn’t see the faces of the victims or perpetrators. Her role is purely analytical, but her impressions can solve a case, answer old questions, or leave a permanent imprint.

“When I worked at DuPont, I saw how a drug was made, scaled up and mass marketed,” she says. “When I worked at AstraZeneca I saw how a drug was manufactured and tested for quality assurance. The work I do now as a forensic chemist can potentially make a difference to families.

“I wouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t already appreciate the beauty in the details.”

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Photograph by Tom NutterAll Part of the Cycle

Phil Woods is checking his car’s GPS tracking system for the location of his next meeting, the first with a new client. She has agreed to enter a contract with Woods’ company that will extend until fall, so he wants to arrive early and make a good impression. It is his second meeting of the day, a day interspersed with phone calls to other clients and other work he’ll do when he returns home later that afternoon.

When Woods arrives, he calls his client from outside her office building in downtown Wilmington. Minutes later Caroline Honse opens the side door and walks her GT Transio commuter bicycle toward Woods, who is waiting near the trailer on his car. It bears the name of his company, Spinners, in crisp black letters. Honse gives Woods a checklist of work items. Woods then lifts the bike onto his trailer, resets the bike’s speedometer, realigns its tires, repairs its gears, adjusts its seat and handlebars, and tunes its brakes. In less than an hour, the meeting is over, he hands Honse her bicycle, then drives off.

Woods began Spinners Mobile Bicycle Repair in 2008, but the idea of a traveling bicycle repair shop began when he was an economics major at the University of Delaware. As a student working part-time as a technician at Wooden Wheels in Newark, he noticed that customers who left their bikes for repair had to do without them for several weeks. Added to that delay was the difficulty some customers had in getting to the shop. A competitive bicyclist, Woods understood the feeling of being without a bike for a long time.

The plan was simple: Woods would open what would be a bike service shop he could take directly to customers. It would wait for several years, however.

Woods, now 28, graduated from UD in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, then started working as a market analyst for ING Direct in Wilmington. By the time he left in April 2008 to take a similar position with a start-up financial group in Wilmington, his career had kicked into high gear.

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By then he’d also launched Spinners as a part-time enterprise. He’d purchased a 10-foot trailer, written a business plan and landed a few clients, but the business was little more than a hobby that made some money.

When Woods received word in October 2008 that the financial group was letting him go as a result of the economy, he was a recently married new homeowner. He looked briefly for another corporate position, but everything had dried up. Woods resigned himself to the reality that his moonlight business would have to become his full-time job, that he would become a business owner during the worst economic climate in America since before World War II.

Six months after launching, he had close to 200 clients and serviced a geographic area that extended from the Main Line of Philadelphia west to Oxford, Pennsylvania, south to Rehoboth Beach and beyond. His clients range from competitive trail and road bicyclists with $5,000 mounts to parents who need quick repairs on their kids’ dirt bikes. Woods provides tune-ups, drive train cleaning and overhauls. When he is not putting more than 400 miles a week on his Suburban Outback and trailer, he is doing bike repairs in his garage at home or fixing bikes at charity races and triathlons as a volunteer.

Woods misses the predictable nature of the corporate world, as well as the healthcare benefits, the 401(k) packages and the salary he once made, but the trade-offs of starting a business in a downturned economy notwithstanding, Woods enjoys one advantage: He is a lone wolf. He once counted 18 bike repair shops in his service area, none of which provided at-home service. “I’m creating a new category,” he says. “I don’t have the rent, the utilities and the overhead to pay. I can provide service and convenience at prices that are lower than regular bike repair shops.

“I am working more now than I ever did, but it’s more rewarding and enjoyable,” he says. “What drives me to do this is that bicycling is an enjoyable, low-cost form of entertainment, and my business is enabling them to do it more frequently and without delay.”

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Photograph by Tom NutterNursing a Dream

If someone were to tell April Alvino on the day her position was eliminated in February that her dismissal would be the catalyst for a new life, chances are she wouldn’t have believed it. 

For five years, Alvino was an administrative assistant for the maintenance department at Invista in Seaford, and though she was comfortable in the position, “I kept thinking I wanted to do more with my life, that I wanted to someday be in a position to help other people,” says Alvino, a Bridgeville resident. While still employed at Invista, she began pursuing an associate’s degree in nursing at Delaware Technical and Community College’s Owens Campus in Georgetown in 2007. When her job ended at Invista, what had once been a part-time pursuit became a full-time one. 

As part of her education at DelTech, Alvino has finished the prerequisite courses. She is now taking classes in microbiology, anatomy and physiology. When she’s not in the classroom, Alvino is a peer tutor at DelTech’s Learning Center, where she offers guidance to other nursing students. Once she completes her course and clinical work and passes her national medical examinations, Alvino can begin work as a registered nurse, which she anticipates will be in about two years.

Alvino is also an officer in Phi Theta Kappa, a national honor society, and is carrying a grade point average over 3.5. Because of her high GPA, she will be able to make the leap from an associate’s degree to a master’s program.

So far, everything is going according to plan: Once she completes her associate’s degree at DelTech, she will transfer to the University of Delaware’s Georgetown campus to pursue a master’s of science in nursing. Her education will include clinical education and experience, where she will work directly with patients for eight-week periods at hospitals throughout Delaware.

She expects to complete her degree from UD in 2015, which will enable her to become a nurse practitioner, and be able to treat both acute and chronic conditions through physical exams and prescribed physical therapy.

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This is not the first time Alvino has attended college, nor is it her initial foray into the medical field. After her graduation from high school in 1987, she took courses at DelTech in Georgetown, where she received a diploma in medical transcription. For the next year, she worked as a transcriptionist at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, transcribing surgical and radiology reports and medical procedures. Though Beebe gave her a taste of hospital work, the job wasn’t fulfilling what she felt was her calling—a career on the front lines of health care, providing one-on-one care. She left Beebe after only one year and started a family.

“I’ve been given a second opportunity and I’m grateful for it,” Alvino says. “You have no choice. You either make the most of it or you hold yourself back.”

More than two decades later, her children are nearly grown. Alvino, 40, is the single mother of three boys, ages 16, 19 and 20. Nicholas, her youngest, attends Woodbridge High School in Bridgeville, and at this young age, he has already developed an interest in learning more about weather patterns. Through his mother’s encouragement, he has talked about the possibility of studying meteorology in college, in the hopes of someday becoming a television weatherman. “Nicholas has a natural inquisitiveness about so many things,” Alvino says. “I constantly impress upon him how important it is to think about his education right now, rather than wait like I did.”

In her words, Alvino is pursuing her new career “with prayer and tears” and help from a large support group of friends and family, led by her boyfriend Robert Lewis, her grandmother Grace Martin, and her place of worship, the Grace Baptist Church in Seaford.

“On the day I was let go from Invista, my first response was, ‘How am I going to make it?’” Alvino says. “Now my feeling is, ‘I know I’m going to make it.’ I believe that there are no accidents. I’ve been given a second opportunity and I’m grateful for it. You have no choice. You either make the most of it or you hold yourself back.”

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