Growing Big Businesses in the Smallest of Places
Life is often compared to a journey. Like any journey worth having, there are beautiful vistas alongside challenging mountains. There are crossroads that confound us, rough terrain that scares us, and unexpected turns we never anticipate. At times, we journey alone. Other times we discover unexpected kindred spirits and support in the most surprising forms. One thing is for certain though, the journey of life requires courage. Courage not just to keep going, but the courage to be ourselves as we go. Sometimes, like in the story of Chad Layman, owner of Fine Earth in Harrisonburg, Virginia, founder of the Fine Earth Adventure Race Benefiting K9’s for Warriors, and co-founder with Kathy Sizemore of the non-profit Strength in Numbers, the journey comes full circle in ways we never expect.
Chad Layman grew up in a rambunctious household, the middle child of three close-knit brothers. His father, an attorney, and his mother a teacher turned stay at home mom, raised the family in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In fact, the first seed of what grew into Fine Earth, the Harrisonburg-based landscaping business Chad owns, was planted when he was only ten years old. That year Chad’s father bought his sons a lawn mower and struck a deal with the boys. He’d give them the lawn mower to earn money mowing neighborhood lawns, but they had to give him a percentage of everything they earned until the mower was paid off. The boys jumped at the chance, and the business flourished. “I had business cards when I was twelve. The card said, ‘Layman Brothers Lawn Work,’ Chad fondly remembers.
Growing up, Chad enjoyed success as an athlete, young entrepreneur, and popular high school student. He also started experiencing something that took him off guard. “I didn’t feel right. Something felt off. I didn’t know how to label it though,” Chad explains. At the time, he wasn’t aware the symptoms he was experiencing were due to depression.
After high school, Chad pursued an accounting degree at James Madison University. By his sophomore year, his undiagnosed depression overwhelmed him. “I fell into a dark hole, but I had no reason to be there. I was at college, had no need for money, was playing sports, in a fraternity, and had no other health issues. I felt terrible though. I had no excitement and a sense of dread for no reason,” Chad shares. Secretly, he began researching possible causes for his unexplained feelings. He soon discovered they matched symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Like many families, Chad didn’t grow up with an open household dialogue about mental health. “Mental health was a foreign concept to me. All I heard regarding mental health was someone being crazy or locked up,” Chad recalls, “So when I discovered my symptoms were linked to depression and anxiety, there was a ton of shame around that.”
Plagued by fear of being judged, Chad developed strategies to hide his true feelings. “I was terrified that people were going to look in my eyes and see I was hurting. I became a master at hiding it, “Chad explains, “I became very outgoing. I became good at asking people about their lives to take the focus off me. I used humor and high energy to deflect how I was doing. I was so motivated by shame and fear that someone would see me as a crazy, weak person.” Eventually, Chad shared his feelings with his parents who set up an appointment with a counselor. However, after one session Chad was determined to solve the issue himself. After graduating with his accounting degree, he packed up and headed to Colorado with a buddy to challenge himself physically, hoping it would also help his depression. In a four-month epic adventure, they climbed all 55 of the famous “14’ers”, mountains over 14,000 feet. The mountains are so challenging that twelve-people died trying to climb them that same summer.
This was also a pivotal time in Chad’s career path. Throughout college he’d grown the landscaping business he started at ten years old into a viable career option, but he was torn. “I was either going to live on a dude ranch and be a cowboy, or I was going to run a landscape company,“ he says smiling. However, depression also played a role in his decision. “I knew I had an issue with depression then. I knew I wouldn’t do well working for a large Certified Public Accounting (CPA) firm. I chose wisely. I was better suited to a job where I could be outside, get to wear a lot of different hats, and be challenged,” he explains.
Building Fine Earth into the thriving business it is now wasn’t easy though. “We worked out of my business partner’s unfinished basement. We spent 15 hours a day landscaping, and did administrative work at night. We were 22 and dreamed big,” Chad explains. Today, Fine Earth is an award-winning business with twenty-one employees that have completed upwards of 20,000 commercial and residential projects. When asked about the key to his business success Chad shares, “Starting your own business comes down to hiring the right people, finding what they’re good at, and letting them do it. Train them well, set goals, help them achieve them, and take good care of them. As you get older, it’s not about the money. It’s about the relationships, quality of life, and enjoying the people you’re working with.”
Throughout the years of growing Fine Earth, Chad had all the components that typically define success. Yet, his private struggle with depression and anxiety was spiraling out of control. Daily panic attacks led to seeking relief through alcohol. Luckily, a few of people had noticed Chad’s struggle. Kathy Sizemore, Chad’s primary rock and confidant through the ordeal remembers, “I was scared for him. It was the same thing day after day. He just wasn’t living.” Kathy was key in Chad’s decision to enter a 90-day rehab program. Chad credits the program for his sobriety, but his depression and anxiety raged on. Without alcohol to depend on, he threw himself into humanitarian work, exercise, and travel. His first suicidal thought came after a 60-mile race through the Colorado mountains. Chad remembers thinking, “If I can’t be happy here, I can’t be happy anywhere. This is going to follow me everywhere I go. This is scary. This is another level.”
Before long, Chad’s suicidal thoughts invaded his life. “It progressed to the point where it was the first thing to come to mind,” Chad recalls, “I went from having the thoughts to forming a plan. I was tired. I was broken. I was in a lot of pain, but I wasn’t telling anybody.” Eventually, this led Chad to another mountain. This mountain was the place where he had decided to end his life. In a tense 12-hour ordeal, Chad was eventually taken by authorities unharmed to a psychiatric facility. Chad once again began seeking every possible treatment he could find. During this time Kathy remembers, “I was constantly watching for signals, signs, anything that might indicate he was in trouble. It was really difficult. I had to learn how to set a boundary between helping him and enabling him.”
Frustrated with his treatment results, Chad explains, “I was just muddling through life. I decided I might as well try and rescue a dog, so I got Andre. Getting him took me from feeling like a two on a scale of ten to feeling like a 4.5 almost immediately. He’s just so happy and in your face. Rescuing him was a big help for me.” Kathy saw the difference too. “He seemed happier. He had a purpose because he had to take care of Andre. It seemed like his day had meaning again,” reflects Kathy.
Soon after, Chad participated in the 22-push-up challenge in honor of the 22 veterans that die by suicide each day. Looking for other ways to support the cause, Chad connected with the non-profit organization, K9’s for Warriors. The group rescues dogs, trains them to be service dogs, and matches them with veterans with mental health challenges. “I love that they save dogs and save soldiers,” Chad explains. Soon after, Chad approached Kathy about creating the Fine Earth Adventure Race Benefiting K9’s for Warriors. “Chad told me he wanted to do an adventure race event, and by the way, we only have 53 days to do it. I thought, ‘We’re going to do what?’ We’d never done anything like this before,” Kathy laughs.
The hard work paid off. Last year the event attracted 860 racers with crowds upwards of 2 ,000 people. The event also raised $150,000 in donations. “It felt like the whole community was coming together to help people. People rallied to help others that are struggling. It was a whirlwind, but we both really enjoyed it,” Chad explains. Kathy smiles as she recalls, “The day of the race I remember looking up to see the parking lot full and all these people walking in. I just stood there for a moment and thought, ‘Wow. Look what we’ve done.’ That was a great moment.”
This year, Chad and Kathy expect twice as many racers and attendees. A charity motorcycle ride has also been added. The event offers racers various course levels, including a SWAT training course. The all-day event includes vendors, food trucks, live music, and much more. Admission and activities are free for military servicemen and women. Children also get in free. Tickets for military spouses are $5, and general admission is $10. The deadline for racers to sign up is June 20th.
After the first wildly successful adventure race, Chad received an outpouring from people with similar mental health struggles. Realizing the lack of dialogue about mental health, Chad posted a video about his depression on Facebook. The response was overwhelming. From that post, the idea of Strength in Numbers, a 501c(3) nonprofit organization, was born. Strength in Numbers offers peer support for people with mental health challenges. Currently, Strength in Numbers hosts three weekly peer support meetings in Harrisonburg, Virginia, two closed Facebook groups for peer support, and one open Facebook page focused on mental health and reducing the stigma surrounding it. Chad and Kathy’s ultimate vision for Strength in Numbers is to provide a vast network of peer support meetings similar to the structure of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Today, Chad’s depression, anxiety, and alcoholism are well managed. He attributes this to working with a professional counselor, staying sober, and helping others. When asked what he would tell the struggling Chad of a few years ago, the response is a simple one, “I would tell him – You’re wrong. There is hope. It can get better. You have work to do.” Reflecting on all that’s happened, Chad also points out, “For so long my life was about hiding the things I felt embarrassed about. It was healing just to get it all out there and say, ‘This is me.’ Our most difficult times become our greatest opportunities for growth.”
Yes, life is most certainly a journey.
Let’s not miss the opportunity to help each other journey on.
For more information visit:
Fine Earth Adventure Race Benefiting K9’s for Warriors – Race registration ends June 20th!
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please know you are not alone. For immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.