Well hi there.
My name is Brandi. Have we met?
It’s been 10 months since I’ve written. If I’m being honest with myself.. it’s been closer to two years. These days, I wear a lot of ball caps, not a lot of makeup, and I rarely take two steps without my sidekick at my heels (#Chester).
For a long time now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought ‘wow – what an amazing story. Someone should write about that. I should write about that.’ Yet, I haven’t cracked open this blog. Why? Well, LIFE. And I’m a huge jerk for writing that, because.. really, Brandi?!? I am BLESSED beyond measure. Life is a gift.
When I write, life is even better – I appreciate more, I feel inspired, and I view things differently because of hearing the stories of others. I hope that through sharing the stories that have impacted me, I am then impacting someone else. Maybe you’ll support a person, cause or business. Maybe you’ll go about your day with a little more pep in your step, inspired or encouraged by the experiences of others. And maybe you will view the world, your neighbors, and in today’s case, the stars, a little differently.
So how ’bout that Corona?? Sh@*.. where to even start. March 6: I was sitting next to a colleague, Dr. Enid Schonewise, at an event at Westside High School. I saw the alert, “Nebraska has first confirmed COVID-19 case.” I passed my phone over to Enid to show her. Her response: “here we go.” We had already been planning for the long-shot-worst-case-scenario of schools being shut down for a few weeks. Still, I never imagined the unprecedented magnitude of this invisible threat. Schools shut down for the remainder of the school year. All major sports cancelling seasons – the Olympic Games being postponed. Things so many of us were used to and took for granted like birthday parties, ample grocery store supplies, even playing at parks with our kids… gone within weeks.
As Enid, myself, and the rest of the Omaha area found out that Friday afternoon the virus was here, my high school friend and business owner Liz Lilla knew, at that moment, that everything in her life would change.
I have been creeping on Liz’s Facebook page to find some high school pictures, but here’s the thing – SHE LOOKS EXACTLY THE SAME AS SHE DID 20 YEARS AGO. Liz was one year older than me but I think we spent every school day together (and then some) for a solid two years. We dedicated ourselves to drama, choir, and speech.. and all of the shenanigans that I remember just as much as the activities themselves. That night after ‘Grease’ rehearsal the main cast all became snowbound in my basement. Riding Ollie the Trolly for 1998 Prom. The countless times ‘a few’ of us caravaned to Liz’s house for Mrs. Hladky’s world-famous homemade french onion soup.
I’m gonna need a minute dreaming about that soup…
Ok, I’m back. Liz was awesome. Liz IS awesome. Kind, positive, caring, someone everyone wanted to be around. Her husband, Erik, was also a PLHS Monarch, but I didn’t know him well back then… he was the super cool soccer guy who was also BRILLIANT. I think his ACT was like 52 or something. Liz and Erik dated, got married, were attending college (Liz, to become an Occupational Therapist), and Erik popped another question… “can we open a gym?”
Liz had been a gymnast and coach. Erik was an athlete and a damn good personal trainer (I actually hired Erik a few times over the years to whip me into shape.) Still… opening a gym? Starting a new business? No easy feat. Have you ever watched gymnastics? There’s a lot of equipment. And mats. And chalk. A LOT of chalk. Where does one even begin??
In 2006, just as their family was growing, Erik and Liz rented out 1200 square feet in a Millard strip mall (right next to what is now the Corner Kick restaurant) and Metro Stars Gymnastics was born. Liz, a Nebraska Occupational Therapy Practitioner of the Year, made sure they provided opportunities for special needs children, as well as typically developing kiddos. They started with just five students.
“We bought a balance beam and mats at a high school auction,” says Liz. “We spent about $50. We were mudding walls on Christmas Eve, building a website, creating a business plan, everything.”
Liz and Erik Lilla literally made their dreams happen themselves through hard work, sweat, planning and vision. They became my go-to’s for my TV reporter needs, not just because I knew them, they were articulate and easy to work with, but they KNEW that it was a sound, strategic move to get publicity and awareness for their company, and were always willing to help. (Also, their kids were freaking cute. I feel like I still owe Katie and Juliette some kind of compensation for how often I used them in stories.)
Over the next 13 years, Metro Stars Gymnastics grew in size, client base, and reputation. Liz and Erik earned respect across the entire US gymnastics community through their incomparable work ethic, sound and smart business decisions, and a never-changing focus to support healthy, active children by inspiring a love of gymnastics. To them, it’s never been about churning out a new generation of robot children gearing up for Olympic success. Their mission is to offer families a wonderful sports environment to grow and have fun.
The results? By 2019, Metro Stars had two locations with approximately 36,000 square feet, serving an estimated 3,000 families. Many Metro Stars classes had waiting lists, and in October, Liz wrote a 3-year vision statement about opening a third location. I was honored to freelance for the Lillas, becoming ‘the girl in the Open Gym videos’, relaying instructions via video for dozens of kids before each session started – one of the few times my kids have almost, ALMOST, thought I was cool. Erik founded a second business, ERK Realty, to help other entrepreneurs by sharing the knowledge he had built up over more than a decade of successful work using the success of Metro Star Gymnastics to invest in additional real estate and projects. Throughout all of their seemingly limitless success, the Lillas remained generous and thoughtful, financially and otherwise supporting countless causes, fundraisers, experiences for children and more.
It was Erik who seemed to sense early on, that this crazy virus that was spreading through Asia and Europe, could impact the businesses they spent their entire adult lives building. By the time COVID-19 reached us, Liz knew they would be hit hard.
“When I saw that first case on the news, I knew everything would change,” says Liz. “We had to really make devastating decisions for our business.”
Social distancing. Less than 10 people in an area, more than 6 feet apart. Have you ever been to a gymnastics class? Coaches need to spot kids. Kids are touching equipment, mats, and each other. You can’t DO gymnastics without touching stuff.. and other people. Liz, with a background in healthcare, knew her gyms could not stay open. And as restaurants, bars and salons began closing their doors, the Lillas had 100 employees waiting to hear if they were losing their jobs.
“For some of our employees, this is their career. They are the breadwinners for their families,” said Liz. “We knew we couldn’t just let everyone go. That wasn’t an option. We committed to paying our staff, using our savings, as long as we could. We did some math and figured we could pay them through September, maybe November.”
This, with no revenue coming in.
Erik and Liz have four children. They have a mortgage. I can’t even imagine how much utilities cost for 36,000 square feet of gym, in addition to facility costs, business expenses, property taxes, you name it. Yet the Lillas committed to financially supporting their full-time employees.
Mind blown. Here’s where I would have curled up in the fetal position, after I had puked, and just cried. And cried. And prayed. And then cried some more.
“I didn’t sleep that night,” said Liz. “My brain started thinking, ‘how can we serve these kids? No school, no sports, no interaction.. how can we still offer our services?’ And my second thought, ‘how can my staff be involved so we have some sort of revenue so we can pay them longer?’ I went into my office, sat down, and said how do we make this happen.”
This crisis has affected so many businesses. As the daughter of small business owners, this has really weighed heavily on my heart. BUT… while I can support restaurants through takeout orders, and I can support my favorite stores and professionals by stocking up on products and gift cards… how can you keep a gymnastics facility running?
Liz turned to the medium countless corporations (including my own Westside Community Schools!) are utilizing right now… THE POWER OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION.
“If I have to teach a gymnastics class in my living room, what would it look like?” asked Liz. “I involved my children to test out my ideas. I had practice classes over video with my friends’ families. Staff jumped in and had great ideas. I then wrote a letter to all of our customers, sharing our history and what we built from nothing. We wouldn’t be charging them for the classes they agreed to, but we offered parents a week of online courses for free, asking, ‘how can we help your kids?'”
Metro Stars offered an hour of normalcy. Kids got to put on their leotards, grab their water bottles, and hear from the coaches they knew and loved. ‘Monday is gymnastics night’ – well, through this innovative plan, it still was. For children and parents, thrown this historic loop of CRAZY with school at home and never leaving the house, gymnastics came to them.
“I was really nervous,” said Liz. “I had done all of this work, stayed up late, put it all on the line. This has never been done before. This was like a start-up company that launched in three days. It was a new celebration every time someone enrolled!”
As of April 11, 130 customers (and counting!) had enrolled for online courses through Metro Stars Gymnastics. A parent left a comment on Facebook, asking if they could enroll from Indonesia (yes!). Metro Stars has developed a library for parents to access anytime their kiddo needs a gym session.. or just a wiggle break.
“Was there an option to lay off our staff and allow them to collect unemployment?” said Liz. “Yes, that was actually recommended to me by quite a few colleagues. But by us getting together and solving this problem as a group, we are uniting. We feel purpose. The ingenuity that has come out of this is so exciting.”
And inspiring. Local media and the national Coaching For Leaders network have featured what Metro Stars is doing, providing business owners and entreprenuers across the country with new ideas – and hope – that they can survive this pandemic. CLICK HERE to listen!
“Necessity is the Mother of Invention,” said Liz. “We didn’t even realize these things were options. We all have so many assets we just have to tap into, areas of strength we take for granted. Then, when we are hit with a situation like this, we realize how we can build upon those strengths and use them differently.”
I am working on focusing on the opportunities presented by this pandemic, not the challenges. I get to be home with my children everyday and watch them, really watch them, 24/7. Both my job and my husband’s jobs are secure and we have the ability to work from home. I have NO EXCUSE not to workout every day, because I’m HERE. Here I am, writing on my couch without Mom guilt because I got to spend the day with my kids AND get a lot of work done, all from the comfort of my kitchen table. How lucky am I?
The Lillas have the opposite of luck in this mess. This pandemic has dealt them one hell of a blow. But instead of lying down and giving up, instead of circling their wagons and focusing solely on their own needs, they stood even taller and have demonstrated true leadership, ingenuity and talent. They are positive. They are strong. They are inspiring. Even now, Liz is reminding herself – and everyone who hears their story – that you can always find stars in the dark if you look hard enough.
“In that October vision statement, I talked about how a third location could reach kids that never had the opportunity to experience gymnastics,” Liz said. “I had no idea I would be able to open a third location in just 6 months – a virtual location!”
Stories like this make us want to run faster and jump higher. They make us dream big, and they help us hold onto those dreams when all seems lost.
Stories like this are why I love to write. Thanks, Liz.