Moms who Rock highlights Orlando moms doing their thing. This week’s spotlight is on Sheila Kramer and her daughter Samantha Taylor! These Orlando moms (And grandma!) run a local publishing company that has had a major impact in Central Florida.
I’m not sure that everyone would describe working in a spare bedroom with your husband and daughter as a dream job. But Sheila Kramer would. She continually says what a joy Lake Mary Life Magazine has been to build and counts working so closely with her family as one of the best parts.
Before we talk about growing a magazine empire from your guest room, let’s back up to how Sheila and Michael Kramer made their way from New York City to Seminole County, FL and even a little before that. Sheila and Michael met in 1974 on Thanksgiving day. Sheila’s first cousin was married to Michael’s first cousin. They hit it off instantly. They went out on a date a day or two after the holiday and were married in January 1975. And they’ll remind you that they only waited so long because that’s the first day the Rabbi was available.
Fast forward a few years, Michael is commuting from a house they had purchased in New Jersey into New York City where he worked as an accountant. The Kramers now had two young children, Samantha and Ben. Having both lost their fathers very young, Sheila and Michael understood how precious life could be and the effects his commute and stressful career could have. They realized if they sold their home and moved to a different area Michael could have a shot at being a full-time musician and live the life he truly dreamed of. So they took to researching areas around the country that had good education and a thriving entertainment industry. They wound up with two options, Orlando or Las Vegas. The two had a little too much of an affection for gambling to think Vegas was a good idea. So, the Kramers headed to Central Florida.
Michael gave himself six months to find a job as a pianist that would provide full-time income. He got status at Disney and then began work at the piano bar at the Sheraton in Maitland. To this day, Michael continues to be a successful musician playing all over the community. Sheila began settling into life in Orlando and began looking for classes and activities for the kids. She noticed there wasn’t a family newspaper like she was used to back home. She took that spark of an idea and turned it into the Family Journal a local publication which she wound up selling to The Orlando Sentinel. It would still be years before she began Lake Mary Life Magazine. As the kids grew older, she was a freelance graphic designer and copywriter for clients throughout the country but the schedule was getting stressful.
On a schedule that wasn’t working for her family:
Sheila: “I had all these different deadlines for all these different clients. When the kids were home over the summer it was always super busy. So it was like camp daddy (Michael worked nights as a pianist at the time). I had to work during the day and I was working 12 to 14 hours a day.”
On starting Lake Mary Life Magazine:
Sheila: “Starting it was something I had been thinking about doing for a long time. I got more and more frustrated with what I was doing which was just very simple design work and writing. Michael finally said to me, Stop talking about starting a magazine and just do it.”
On its meager beginnings:
Sheila: “I invested a ridiculously small amount of money to open a checking account. The first issue paid for itself. And every issue grew. It was a remarkable growth.”
By the end of the first year Lake Mary Life was in the green. But back then, Sheila and Michael did it all. For years, they ran the magazine out of spare bedrooms in the house. Sheila understood what a big chance they were taking by opening a small business.
On the right place, the right time, and all the right skills:
Sheila: “Every part of it except for the sales part, was something Michael or I could do. So the fact that I had a husband who could edit, write, and do all the business part because he was an accountant was fantastic. I knew the graphic design and could write. It was the right place at the right time. There was nothing like it around town. It was a joy, it has always been a joy.”
Samantha (Sam) had come back from college at UF and she and her now husband John (JT) moved home to Seminole County to start a family. As the magazine grew, they were able to hire her on.
On moving back to Seminole County:
Sam: “I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else. We got married so young and were in the get married and have family mode. I grew up here. I loved being a Seminole County girl, the public schools here, going to the grocery store and running into people you know. I knew I wanted to raise my family in that environment.”
On joining the family business:
Sam: “I always say, how lucky am I that my parents had a business that I could work in that wasn’t the plumbing business or something. It’s something really interesting to me. I was working at March of Dimes when it started and they didn’t need me at first.”
Sheila: “We couldn’t afford to pay you!”
Sam: “After I had Joey, I was itching to go back and do something. He was about 18 months old and there was now a place I could work part-time. It was ideal. And to have the flexibility that working for your family business provides, it’s fantastic.”
On working so closely with family:
Sheila: “My favorite days are the days she’s in the office.”
Sam: “We have a really great relationship and I adore working with her. Just like any mother and daughter we can get on each other’s nerves. I have to be careful not to be too sarcastic or familiar. At home you can talk to your mom one way and in an office you can’t. Also, she will ask me if I have enough protein in my salad at lunch- something previous bosses of mine haven’t done for some reason.”
On putting employees first:
Sam: “We have a staff that is like family. Everyone in the office is an incredible gift. My mom and dad value our staff so much they are incredibly generous and it keeps the staff happy. It’s such a lesson for me to see one day when I have employees, how you treat them.”
Sheila: “But as a small business, we’ve also been in situations when the economy is good we’re rolling in cash and when you go through a dry period it’s not. One year for example, we were not able to give raises. But then by the middle of the year we were doing really well so I just stood in the middle of the office with a bunch of envelopes and said here’s another paycheck.
We don’t look at it as that’s our money we look at it as that’s the money that they earned. I feel blessed we have enough. We don’t need to take more than we need. It’s a joy to go to work and to show these people who work so hard that they are valued.”
On the lessons of being the boss:
Sheila: “Michael had said, never hire anybody you can’t fire. And that has been an important lesson to learn. The real bottom line is that even though everyone does treat the business well, the buck stops here. And when something is wrong it’s my fault. It doesn’t matter what happened.”
Lake Mary Life Publishing has a remarkable reputation in the community and people look forward to each and every issue. More than 65,000 copies are distributed every other month and the company has grown to a staff of 18 people. The company now includes three additional publications, Oviedo-Winter Springs Life, Altamonte-Wekiva Springs Life, and the most recent addition, J Life.
On starting J Life Magazine:
Sam: “Everyone should be able to start a business with someone who has done it for 15 years right next to them! Mom really let me make this my project. I can go to her to check in whenever needed. But the buck stops with me on this one. And it’s so fun for me. While I have always loved Lake Mary Life Magazine and been so proud, I never felt the way that she felt about it. That is her baby and every page is so important and every issue she feels like she gave birth. I am feeling that way with J Life and now I can relate.”
On the joy of motherhood:
Sheila: “I loved being a mom and I was always and still am so proud of their accomplishments. I’m so lucky they both went away to college and came back here which says a lot I think too.”
On the even greater joy of being a grandparent:
Sheila: “I hope that the love that is in my heart that they understand it. We want to be a support that’s our goal is to just be there emotionally and whatever gifts we have to share. But there are no words for how I feel about those munchkins.”
On support from family:
Sam: “When she says they want to be supportive that’s like the understatement of the century because with all of the issues we’ve had, I’ve been a mom for 13 years and we’ve had a lot of unexpected things to deal with. I cannot imagine having gone through that and continuing to go through all of it without their support emotionally and financially. It has been a journey and I’ll forever be grateful for all of the support that they have given to us. Especially that relationship with my mom, nobody feels the pain of your kid hurting the way that a mom does. And that extends to grandma.”
Sheila: “I can take anything people dish out to me. But if somebody comes after my kids or grandchildren I’m a deadly weapon. My greatest joy is that we’ve been successful and Samantha and John do well, he has a phenomenal job and they are successful. But my greatest joy that this magazine has given us is that we’ve been able to support so that the other two children don’t have to go without anything because of all of the special therapies and such that Joey needs. So whatever we can do to that is my gift. That’s what makes us happy.”
Samantha and her husband JT have three children, Joey (13), Aaron (11), and Billie (4). From very early on Samantha could tell Joey wasn’t developing according to standard milestones. She was adamant that her family would face challenges head on, whatever they might be. Starting at just 16 months old he began different therapies to assist in his development.
On realizing something wasn’t quite right:
Sam: “When Joey was a baby it was apparent that he wasn’t doing the things typical one year olds should do. He wasn’t clapping or talking. He got upset in loud places and was easily overwhelmed. He also exhibited extraordinary talents (See Joey on the Today Show here). I’ve never been one to shy away from, if something is wrong with my kid, tell me so I can help get him the help he needs.”
Sheila: “We’ve had so many mixed messages about what it actually is. It was so frustrating.”
Sam: “I’m a college educated person and I know the things he’s exhibiting sound like autism and they look like autism. But I cannot tell you how many experts we have seen from the time he was one until he finally got diagnosed at 11. We went to developmental pediatricians, pediatric neurologists, countless therapists – speech therapists, occupational therapists, mental health therapists, you name it. I can’t even tell you the number of places we’ve gone.”
On accepting hard truths:
Sam: “I did not have my head in the sand like many parents. Because I’ve seen it. I see parents whose kids are running around with clear issues and it’s so hard to accept. It is still to this day hard to accept that something is wrong with your kids. You can either stick your head in the sand and ignore it and pretend like everything’s okay or you can swallow your pride and do what is best for your kids. And that has been something that we have been vigilant about. I can’t imagine not giving him every single possibility so that he has the best life and to be happy.”
Sam made the decision to move him from public elementary school to a special needs school. In 4th grade, the staff at school noticed he was exhibiting signs of anxiety. Sam, not an anxious person herself, didn’t know much about it. But she was aware that Joey was often worried about all sorts of things. Based on the school’s recommendations they took him to a pediatric psychiatrist for a full evaluation. Joey was diagnosed with high functioning autism, general anxiety disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
On accepting a diagnosis:
Sam: “When you hear it, it is devastating even though you know it already. You go through the stages of grief.”
Sheila: “Because he’s not going to have the life we thought he was going to have when he was the super brain kid that did all these amazing things. It’s a whole different thing. Is he ever going to get married or have relationships? Is he going to live on his own? We don’t know any of those things.”
Sam: “What we do know, and JT and I say all the time is, never say never with Joey. I thought he would never speak and now he doesn’t stop. I could give you 50 examples of things I never thought would happen.”
Just last year, their middle child, Aaron, was diagnosed with dysgraphia and anxiety. As a vocal parent who had been through a lot, other moms started confiding in her or asking her to speak to a friend going through similar struggles. Realizing how many people were out there that needed support but were hesitant to open up, she created a private Facebook group for moms of children with special needs. The response was tremendous. Almost 1,000 people joined the group and it has become an active support group for moms near and far.
In addition, Samantha writes for Kveller and Grok Nation about their journey which compelled her to start The Special Moms Blog. It’s an extension of her voice and of the Facebook group she started. Samantha has invited moms and professionals to write for the site.
On sharing her children’s struggles on a public platform:
Sam: “I have talked to Joey and Aaron and I’ve said do you know what blogging is? I’ll say, would it be okay with you if I wrote blogs about some of the things we’ve learned and don’t use your name in the blog I want to do? They both said yes. Now, I don’t know if they know exactly what they’re agreeing to. I hope they know it’s written with love and not to embarrass them. I hope they know my intention which is to help other moms and take away some of the stigma of their diagnoses.”
On her passion for writing:
Sam: “I love to write and get it out. It’s sort of my outlet. I’m awake 18 hours a day and I spend 17.5 doing something for somebody else. Whether I’m at work or taking a kid to therapy or at the grocery store or cooking dinner, and while I love my role in everything, it is exhausting. For me, I have found in the last few years that getting that out is therapeutic for me.”
All throughout the interview, one theme kept ringing true over and over again. Each time someone had an idea they wanted to pursue or a challenge they were facing they were met with unwavering support from the rest of the family. And it seems to have made all the difference for their success. Who knows what Sheila or Samantha will start next. Whatever it is, I’m sure they’ll do it with love, passion, and devotion to their family and for the betterment of our community.
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