Recent dramatic downturns in today's economy have forced and inspired growing numbers of people to rethink the way that they make a living.
Take, for example, Eric Weinstein, 35, a teacher of autistic children at Smedley Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia, where the Penn State grad with a master's in elementary and special education from Holy Family College has his day job.
Weinstein has turned an interest in balloons into a profitable endeavor (www.liveballoons.com).
"I got into it to make an extra couple of bucks on the side; some people work at it full time," he says.
"I had a friend who did it for years. He taught me the basics. From there, I just became addicted to learning more and more. I bought books, videos and DVDs on how to do more advanced balloon creations," he explains.
"Eventually, I got tired of watching the DVDs and started creating my own stuff. I would be and still am constantly thinking of new ways to put the balloons together to make amazing sculptures. I'm at the point now where there's nothing I can't make out of balloons."
In the beginning, he explains, he practiced so much that he took what he had made into his school to show to the kids and staff members.
"One of my first jobs out of college," he says, "was as a therapeutic staff support worker" in a classroom of autistic youngsters.
"I loved the environment and interaction with the children. It was from that point on that I knew I wanted to work with students with autism," states Weinstein, who majored in criminal justice with the ambition of becoming a police officer, changing his mind about a career only after he had received his undergraduate degree.
'Always Been Pretty Creative'
Among Weinstein's most ambitious balloon creations to date are a pink Cadillac, which took him five hours to build; a large helicopter; and a firefighter complete with hose.
"How long it takes depends on what people want, but usually, it takes a couple of minutes. I'll make really big requests — like the pink Cadillac — ahead of time and bring them with me," he says.
Want to see Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spinning a dreidel on his finger?
He can do that, too, insists Weinstein.
He confesses that he never expected to be doing balloon parties and events — he's a regular at the Kitchen Bar in Abington and Kix & Giggles Children's Playland in the Northeast — and to becoming as good at tying balloons together as he has — even though he admits readily to having a "comedic personality" — an attribute, no doubt, that has served his balloon performances well.
"I actually don't have much artistic talent, but do consider myself a balloon artist. I never did any kind of entertainment before, but I have always been pretty creative," he acknowledges, "so that has helped me most of all in my ability to come up with new ideas and create them."
The people he winds up entertaining seem to love his work right back. Adjectives like "incredible," "wow!" and "amazing" flow freely when onlookers view his work.
One person, he notes, even called him the Criss Angel (of "Mindfreak" fame) of balloon sculptures.
"When I leave an event," says Weinstein, "my goal is to leave the room looking like 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' — only done in balloons. I want to see bright colors everywhere, with children and parents smiling from what I'm able to make with balloons."
He claims not to be accomplished at many things in life, "but give me some latex and a few minutes, and I'll make magic happen right before your eyes."