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CoMo residents cash in on hobbies

Four people find a calling with three big ideas from their favorite pasttimes

November 8, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

A dollhouse occupies the corner of a Columbia apartment. Two moms’ kitchens await their bakers, even though the kids are off at college. White judo robes hang in a security guard’s closet.

Anybody might have these nestled-away nooks at home and hobbies in life. For a miniature-maker, two cookie creators and a judo master, spending free time doing what they loved wasn’t good enough.

Instead, their pastimes have become more than a way to relax. These four still glean joy from what was once just something they did on the side. Now, healthier living, aid for those in need and lessons in balance and coordination accompany that pleasure.

Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” wafts through Bradley Meinke’s triple-duty laundry room, utility closet and miniatures studio. With round tortoiseshell glasses perched on his nose, he drills miniscule holes into a small block of wood. Meinke is creating copies of his bestselling 2-inch miniature, a wooden butcher’s block.

“I get to be an adult, and I get to play,” Meinke says with a boisterous laugh, his eyes never leaving the drill press. Wearing a faded orange T-shirt, khakis and Birkenstocks, he is surrounded by his self-described organized chaos. A washer and dryer sit in a back alcove, and stacked board games and supplies fill a side closet. A massive dollhouse crowds the majority of the room. Thirty years’ worth of collected miniatures pack the dollhouse, each room crowded with exceptionally detailed upholstered chairs, armoires, rugs and lamps.

“I think the difference between a hoarder and collector — it’s a fine line,” Meinke says. “I’ll admit to the fact that I hoard, but I hoard nice things.”

Meinke, 49, has the stocky build of Jason Alexander and the voice of Nathan Lane. He started his business, Purple “B” Emporium, in 2009 through Etsy, a website where people can sell art, food and other items. His miniatures go for $85-300.

Bradley Meinke constructs a tiny table to sell in his online store, Purple “B” Emporium. He makes $85-300 on each piece he sells.

The business is a less taxing way for Meinke to capitalize on his love of crafting. While working a demanding job as a costume designer, Meinke found himself stressed and sick. He decided to return to the hobby he began more than 30 years ago. “My world had spiraled out of control,” he says. “It was kind of like, you can go to the doctor and keep taking more pills for conditions that, if you took time for yourself, you could control.”

Meinke’s decision led to a life change. Besides creating the online business, Meinke continued his day job as a guest curator at Stephens College and went to Columbia College to obtain a bachelor’s degree in history. And he became healthier and happier without the stress of his past job.

His interest in crafting began in childhood. His mother gave him a miniatures kit for his birthday, and his father instructed him on the basics of woodworking. Meinke taught himself the rest through trial and error.

Creation starts when he is inspired by an era, a TV show or a piece of furniture. Meinke then researches and puts together a prototype. The miniature-maker’s design philosophy is “more is more,” and this applies to detail work, the dollhouse and his actual home. As he walks through his living room, he moves around tables filled with porcelain lamps and multi-faceted crystal vases. Meinke surveys the room as if it were his masterpiece. Much like the dollhouse, the space hosts a collection of pieces acquired over time.

Back in the studio, Tara, one of Meinke’s two Siamese cats, stretches out her declawed paws on the side of the white dollhouse. She meows for Meinke’s attention while he works. As if attending to a crying baby, he turns around.

“You’re so talkative and so helpful … yes, yes you are,” Meinke says, petting her softly. He moves a pile of magazines off two stacked plastic storage containers so Tara has more room to lie down. The cats have become part of his life, as well as his working ritual. “I usually work every Sunday morning without fail because it’s kind of my time,” Meinke says. “It’s coffee, classical music, cats and crafting. It’s my four C’s.”

Meinke’s background in fashion design and marketing benefits the carefully detailed creation of his miniatures and his storage methods. Ready-to-sell bookcases, faux marble tables and china tea sets are kept in white Jimmy Choo boxes, with more mini furniture in containers labeled Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent. These boxes fill the studio and connect Meinke’s fashion-filled past to his present.

The butcher’s block Meinke is working on doesn’t get to be placed in a designer box today because this one takes a little more time and careful detailing. Meinke pops open his X-Acto knife and begins shaving away the clean edges of the 2-inch block.

“No one buys this smooth because it’s not interesting,” Meinke says as he focuses on the blade. When it’s complete, the block will have a dip in the brown finished surface and a small cleaver lodged into the wood. Meinke has complete control over the outcome of the block of wood in his hands, and it’s that control that he relishes in his hobby-turned-business.

“That is the biggest thing, that I have something that’s mine and all mine,” Meinke says with an unapologetic smile. “This is my world, and I can control it.”

+ Raquel Mendez

Whenever Tracey Pfeiffer and Tina Price bake chocolate chip cookies, they have to keep their families from eating their hard work.

The women aren’t hoarding the baked goods for themselves; these treats are special. Pfeiffer and Price created the Chocolate Chip Chicks, an organization trying to help their city one confection at a time.

They bake and deliver online and phone orders of chocolate chip cookies and donate the profits to causes in the community that need a helping hand, whether it’s an expecting teen who needs maternity clothes or a local church trying to get a sound system for its children’s wing.

“It’s a gut feeling of ours that it was something we were called to do,” Pfeiffer says. “Sometimes you get so caught up in everyday life and responsibility that you don’t take the time to volunteer or help others. It’s been incredibly rewarding.”

The idea for the Chocolate Chip Chicks took form at a Rock Bridge High School basketball game when Pfeiffer and Price contemplated what they were going to do with their baking skills once their children had left for college. That’s when they heard about two women with a similar nonprofit business. In February 2011, facebook.com/CCChicks went live.

Pfeiffer and Price’s friendship has fueled their organization. Between jokes about how the program has improved their technological skills and laughing about how their families are banned from the baking process, the two women excitedly interrupt each other to finish each other’s stories.

“We’re just a couple crazy old ladies,” Pfeiffer says. “We just look for an excuse to get together and giggle,” Price adds.

Tina Price and Tracey Pfeiffer bake cookies for charity. Their most recent donation was made to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Talking about the people they’ve helped is the only time the animated chitchat and joking cease, replaced by humility and kindness. Pfeiffer says that sometimes people take things for granted and that small things can make a difference in someone’s life.

The Chocolate Chip Chicks have donated bus passes for students at Hickman High School and clothes to those in need. Other causes include donating to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and paying the expenses of a dog up for adoption at the Central Missouri Humane Society.

“We don’t want all of our money to go to one cause,” Price says. “There are so many causes that do great things, but some fall through the cracks. Because we’re so little, we want to help people that don’t have other resources.”

Once they provided new clothes to a boy whose family had to leave their home suddenly. His feet were hitting the concrete through his sneakers’ worn-out soles.

Pfeiffer says that sometimes the people they help are shy when they receive a gift, but this boy was ecstatic and appreciative. He immediately tried his shoes on and ran to show his mother his new clothes. She was choked-up as her son showed off everything to her. “His mother was behind him and mouthed the words ‘thank you’ to me,” Pfeiffer says.

The cookie crafters rarely meet their benefactors, which is fine by them. Donations usually go through guidance counselors at the public schools, who also give them ideas of where to donate their next batch of profits.

Back in the kitchen, Pfeiffer and Price bake using an adapted Tollhouse recipe that Pfeiffer calls “Tollhouse with a twist.” Then they get together on Fridays to do the rest of the work together. They package the cookies in white boxes tied with colorful ribbons, stop at McDonald’s for Diet Cokes, make the deliveries and go to lunch.

The Chocolate Chip Chicks make about 10-12 dozen cookies each week to fill online orders, but Pfeiffer says that they are still not well-known in Columbia. They often deliver surprise batches to people with confused or skeptical looks. Thinking that the women have just randomly brought them cookies, people are hesitant to accept the treats. Pfeiffer and Price explain that they’re just the bakers; the cookies are for a good cause. But when recipients recognize the two women, they know they’re in store for a batch of chocolatey treats.

Because profits go to a charitable cause, Price says that some customers have given her extra money regardless of the actual price of the order. The Chocolate Chip Chicks think they’ve raised about $4,200 for various charities, and they’re waiting for a new cause to come around so they can spend what they’ve recently earned.

“I knew there were lots of needs out there,” Pfeiffer says. “But this has been a reminder that there’s a lot of people out there who need some help, who need a cookie."

+ Erin Jones

At the end of judo practice, Sensei Randy Russell instructs eight of his students to lay their uniform belts down on the mat in a circle.

“Make it bigger, guys,” Russell says, and the children push the sides out a little farther. “OK, good. Now go sit down over there.” The instructor points toward the lower side of the mat just a few feet from the circle they’ve just made.

The white gis, or judo uniforms, flutter like wings as the children trot to the sidelines. The older students take their places across the mat. They watch intently as Russell picks out two equally sized students, guides them to the center of the circle and turns them to face each other.

“Now I want you to try to push each other out,” he says. The two boys bow to each other. Their shoulders tense, and their arms bend in anticipation. On Russell’s signal, they launch at each other like heat-seeking missiles.

The circle exercise develops balance and coordination. Judo, Japanese for “the gentle way,” is a form of self-defense and includes learning how to throw and hold opponents down. It also teaches students to pay attention and follow instructions.

Russell, a sixth-degree black belt, is using almost 50 years of experience to teach others these skills. After more than 20 years in the community, he and his business partner, Doug Stritzel, opened the Columbia Youth Athletic Club this year in the Parkade Center. The dojo has mats, workout equipment and a punching bag and serves all ages and disciplines.

At the start of practice, Russell weaves through the students and supervises their stretches. Russell smiles beneath his trimmed white moustache and surveys the room. His eyes focus intently on the students, but his kind smile and friendly demeanor put them at ease.

Sensei Randy Russell throws Sam Wesselmann, 12, during a Tuesday lesson. In judo, competitors score points by throwing and pinning their opponent on the mat.

In 1963, a 15-year-old Russell and his twin brother, Danny, practiced judo four days a week and traveled on weekends to visit dojos all over the Midwest. After two years of intense study, they began teaching others, but Russell says he’s never stopped learning. “People say they master something, and that means you know everything,” he says. “That’s not the case with judo. Judo’s basically based upon a circle; it’s never-ending.”

Six years ago, Russell received news that he had prostate cancer. The diagnosis came at the beginning of May, and he says he doesn’t remember much between that day and his surgery later that month.

“Fighting on the mat is easy; fighting cancer is not easy,” Russell says. “It puts things in perspective, what’s really important in life.” It took more than a year before he had recovered enough to go back on the mat, but teaching judo is what makes him feel comfortable.

Today Russell works as a security guard at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, but every Tuesday and Thursday he goes to the athletic club to teach. “It’s what you do,” he says. “You give back.” Give and take; it’s a never-ending circle, just like the judo learning process.

Russell hopes the club will become a not-for-profit organization that teaches multiple disciplines and hosts a boxing club. He’d also like to offer scholarships to students who can’t afford the $30 monthly class fee.

“I want to see it grow,” Russell says. “If you can change one kid, help them out, it’s all worth it. That’s all I care about. You have to leave a mark somewhere and hope you do the right thing along the way.”

At the end of judo practice, the two young boys stand at the center of the circle once again. Breathing heavily, they listen as Russell announces the winner.

“Good job, guys,” Russell says with a grin. The boys shake hands and fix the circle after their showdown has broken the ring. But when the victor begins to walk away, Russell calls him back. “Wait a minute now,” he says. “The winner goes again.”

“Jesse!” Russell says. At the sound of his name, an older student stands. The younger boy looks toward his next opponent. His head tilts back, and his eyes grow round, like Jack looking up at the beanstalk.

After a moment, Russell lets out a throaty chuckle. “Aw, I’m just kidding! Go sit down,” he says, and laughter ripples throughout the dojo.

The boy smiles in relief and hurries back to his seat as two more students rise and come to the circle.

+ Jessica Clark

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