The Farrells Built a Business Around Giving

It’s hard to believe Tina and Steve Farrell moved to Florida with nearly nothing. Following family from Long Island, N.Y., the childhood sweethearts, now married 30 years, worked hard to build what they have today.

“Steve worked whatever jobs he could get. He started out cleaning parking lots for $50 a night,” Tina says of her husband, who tried out a few trades, starting with flooring, then roofing. Steve was fired from his first flooring job for “working too hard.” His boss said he could not keep up with him. Once Steve found his niche in the roofing industry, he worked for the same company for 15 years, Tina for nine, before deciding to start their own business.

Since then, their business and charity empire has grown exponentially, allowing the couple the opportunity to touch countless lives.

After Hurricane Michael struck the Florida panhandle in October, Steve Farrell and a crew of workers accompanied the Central Florida Jeep Response Team on the drive north and spent the weekend clearing fallen trees and other debris from the yards and rooftops of residents who didn’t have insurance or funds to cover the cost.

Humble Beginning

In the mid-’90s, the Farrells were still relatively new to Florida and were barely making ends meet. “We were almost bankrupt when we started; it was pretty bad. After a year of still working at the same company and trying to start our own business after work, we decided to go completely on our own,” Steve says. “We had just left a good job with a steady paycheck and we started doubting ourselves. As soon as we got to our lowest point, everything turned around and the business took off like crazy.”

After starting Farrell Roofing in 2006 out of a 12-foot by 16-foot backyard shed, they began to build a legacy based on hard work and the importance of investing in one’s community.

“We started helping as soon as we were able to. The first 10 years we focused on getting this business to where it’s at, but always gave back to the community when we could. We did every charity event we were asked to do. We did Wheelchairs for Kids, Dancing With the Local Stars — everything got our name out there, and in turn, our outreach kept growing as the business grew,” Tina says.

The couple set a goal to open one business a year and have followed through, which explains the expansive evolution of the Farrell business empire. One of their most recent businesses, The Columbian Event Center in Port Richey, hosts a vast array of event from weddings, birthday parties, and baby showers, to corporate meeting, classes, and the Port Richey Rotary Club meetings. The Columbian is also home to several events organized through the Farrell’s nonprofit, Farrell Cares, which donates 100% of net proceeds to the charities they support.

The holidays seem to hold a higher purpose for the Farrells, as not only an opportunity to bring family together but community residents from every walk of life. Among their open-invitation events at The Columbian are the Halloween event “Trunk or Treat” and free dinners on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“We don’t want anyone to have to eat a holiday dinner alone,” Tina says.

So Many People in Need, So Little Time

The Farrells’ long history of giving has touched countless people and organizations, some founded by the couple themselves. Farrell Cares began organizing the annual Cotee River Bike Fest in 2018. This event is held each October in downtown New Port Richey, and since Farrell Cares took over, has 100% of net proceeds donated to charity. They also host Jeepin’ 4 Justice, an annual 100% charity event held at the Concourse Rotary Pavilion and Pasco Safety Town.

The Cotee Rivewr Bike Fest is the largest event held by Farrell Cares so far, bringing in around 30,000 people with all proceeds last year benefitting the Children’s Burn Center and The Angelus House. The Angelus House has been operating since 1979, originally taking in children with disabilities for short stays. Now, the Angelus is a full long-term residential facility for children and adults.

Steve and Tina find that the more they are able to help, the more need they encounter. “Every month there’s something else that we want to do,” Tina says. “We just finished an event for The Good Samaritan Health Clinic, auctioning off donated decorated Christmas trees. We both are on several boards for several nonprofit organizations such as the Red Apple School, the Angelus House, Port Richey Rotary Club, and Pasco County Sheriff’s Charities.

“We also sponsor a local musical group, The Bearded Brothers Band. Two years ago, they lost their violinist, Robbie Cartwright, in a motorcycle accident. Just weeks after that tragedy, we were able to raise over $100,000 for his family at a huge concert at Sims Park,” she adds. “Last year, we held another concert at The Stockyard and were able to raise over $40,000. Robbie’s family and the band members decided to purchase instruments for local schools. The instruments were presented to the kid’s in Robbie’s name.”

The Farrells are also able to use their businesses, which are primarily construction-related, to help community members in serious times of need. They have come to the rescue of families in need of hurricane damage repairs, elderly citizens, single parents needing a helping hand, and veterans in need of assistance. The Farrells donate materials and are proud to have employees who donate their skills and time.

“Some of these guys are not in a position where they can give up all their time. For them to offer their time is amazing. It gives us a stronger sense of family through all of our businesses and more of a connection with our employees,” Tina explains.

The Farrells attribute part of their success in business and in charity to a corporate culture that combines hard work and giving back. The couple share their respect for their community’s seemingly unlimited capacity for giving, singling out David Gesualdo, founder and publisher of Jeepin’ magazine.

“I do want to say something about David,” Tina says. “The guy never takes any credit for what he does. The Gesualdos are a great family — really an asset to not only the Jeeping community, but the Central Florida community as well. We are honored and blessed to have them as friends.”

Nuts and Bolts

Tina and Steve Farrell own and operate a number of Central Florida businesses and host numerous charity events through their nonprofit, Farrell Cares, several of which are at The Columbian Event Center in Port Richey.

Floor It: CFOR Is Off and Running

Central Florida Off Road was founded by four friends who share three common interests: family fun, community service and off-road adventure.

Founded in early 2017 at their “clubhouse,” North 30th Sports Pub & Grille in Tampa, CFOR’s four charter members now comprise the group’s board: John Crabb, Robert Dumaine, Jason Sparkman and Dana Tibbets. Two secretaries, Melissa Carter and Shelley Sparkman, help organize events, coordinate with other clubs, and welcome new members, among many other tasks. The club currently counts 35 bannered members (and growing) in and around Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee and Hernando Counties.

CFOR welcomes riders of every experience level and requires participation in events and group trail rides to earn a banner. Activities include flag and wreath placement on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, volunteering and participating in such events as Jeepin’ With Judd, Krawl’n for the Fallen, Jeepin’ 4 Justice and Jeeps vs. Harleys. Members joined last year’s Hurricane Harvey relief effort and recently registered a two-mile section of Highway 301 as part of Florida’s Adopt-A-Highway program.

Jeepin’ Central Florida caught up with John Crabb to learn more about the genesis of CFOR and the group’s activities and goals.

John, how long have you been off-roading?

Since the early days with my high school buddies. I grew up in Seffner, a little suburb between Tampa and Plant City, and we started off-roading at Lakeland Mudhole in 1995. Back then, it was mostly mud trucks, just any kind of four-wheeler. I only recently got into Jeeps, about three or four years ago.

What got you into Jeeps?

I just started seeing more and more around and I thought maybe that was the way to go. And I haven’t looked back since. Buying that Jeep was the best decision I ever made.

What are you working with?

It’s a 2006 Wrangler TJ. It had been a little customized when I bought it, but it looked nothing like it does today.

It’s amazing how quickly a new hobby can become a lifestyle.

It definitely is a lifestyle. When they say “Jeep life,” that’s what it is.

How long has Central Florida Off Road been around?

Only about a year and a half. We were originally in a different club, Trail Monkeys, and I was actually the vice president. But we decided to take a different path and do our own thing. They were a great group, very family-oriented, but we wanted to do more trail-riding and off-roading. That’s why I bought a Jeep. But there are no hard feelings.

CFOR started with four members — myself, Robert Dumaine, Jason Sparkman and Dana Tibbets — then grew to five or six, and now we’re up to 35 or 40. All four of the main members have the same role. We don’t have titles. We vote if there’s something we need to vote on.

Sounds like you are growing fast.

We are constantly growing. I think people see us having a great time and doing good things for the community. We have fun and we enjoy being around each other, and that speaks for itself. We are very family-friendly and family-oriented. Kids are always welcome. Jeeping is a great way to bond with your kids. It’s like one big family.

Do you have kids yourself?

I have an 18-year-old son and a 15-year-old son. My oldest joins up with us when he can, but his Jeep’s motor blew. My youngest still rides with me.

A lot of parents would give anything to share an activity like that with their kids.

That’s true. And Jeeps have that “Wow” factor. It’s always something different. The trails are never the same. And it’s not just the Jeepin’ thing. My youngest enjoys going up to the national cemetery to raise the flags and lay the wreaths. He’s into Fortnite and Minecraft, like a lot of kids. But I tell him you have to make time for other activities, especially outdoor activities. It’s part of our family now. I always tell them, if something happens to me, keep the Jeep.

You mentioned community service. What charities do you support?

We don’t have a specific charity picked out for our club yet. We always try to give back and help the community, and that means being involved in as many charities as we can. I think that says something about your group and the character of your group. And we try to get with other Jeep clubs, and that’s the biggest thing: the Jeep community coming together to support a great cause.

What charitable effort have you been most proud of?

Probably being part of the events like Krawl’n for the Fallen and Jeepin 4 Justice, that help the families of fallen police. They do great things in this community.

Where do you ride?

All over. Hard Rock at Ocala is a popular spot. The Jeep Ranch in Sumterville tries to do one event a month. They just had one for prom. Everyone went and bought a bunch of old prom dresses and tuxedo T-shirts. It was pretty cool.

How does a prospective member join your club?

We don’t have any procedure set in stone. We just want everyone to ride along and hang out, just get to know everybody. We want to make sure the club is a good fit for you and you’re a good fit for us. Not everybody has the same interests or goals.

But I get the sense CFOR is a good choice for those who want to do a lot of wheeling.

That’s exactly what we try to do. It’s in our name: “Off Road.” We will spend as much time as we can off-road, not in the parking lots. We have one meet-and-greet a month — or we try to, and if we don’t, it’s not a big deal. Most people get to see us out on the trails. That’s a good way to get members. If you’re on your own, you can ride with us.

CFOR Spotlight

JCF mixes it up with Robert Dumaine and Jason Sparkman, two of the four charter members of Central Florida Off Road.

Tell us about your rig. 

Dumaine: I own a 2006 Jeep Wrangler LJ.

Sparkman: My Jeep is a 1997 Cherokee with a 6.5-inch lift, 33×12.50×15 tires, front lockers, custom-built bumpers and a Smittybilt 9500 winch.

What’s the best part of the Jeep lifestyle? 

Dumaine: The friendly and familiar environment — meeting new people, wheeling with them, and always learning.

Sparkman: The friends that become family.

Why should Central Florida Jeepers join CFOR? 

Dumaine: Because we are a family-friendly group that loves to wheel, have fun, get to know new people, and give back to the community.

Sparkman: You can’t find a better group of people to be around. CFOR is a new type of club. We don’t judge you by your vehicle or the banner across your windshield. If you want to hang out and wheel your rig, come on out and have some fun!


Hanging With the Trail Monkeys

Can off-road fun, family values and charity work go hand-in-hand? Jeepin’ Central Florida sat down with Charles Scott, president of Trail Monkeys, a 60-banner club with members from Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough County.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? How long you have been a Jeeper?

I am the assistant supervisor for the City of Largo Municipal Golf Course. I am also a licensed horticulture technician, which is my official title. I’ve worked for the city of Largo for 10 years. It is my home away from home. This is what funds my Jeep addiction. I am also the owner of Monkey Grips Paracord Accessories which is a result of my Jeep addiction.

I got my first Jeep in early 2012. It was handed down from my pop. We wanted to keep it in the family. My Jeep was all stock when I drove her from Pennsylvania to Florida. At that time I did not know a single person who was a Jeeper.

Some Trail Monkeys gather around for a photo at their fundraiser for the
Humane Society of Pinellas on Dec. 2, 2017. They took in almost 1,000 lbs. of
pet food and raised over $6,000!

As a veteran Jeeper, what advice would you give to someone new to the activity?

The golden rule: Never wheel alone. There are so many things that can happen when you are in the woods. A perfect day can change in an instant, leaving you hurt, stranded and in trouble. Even the most prepared Jeepers could easily find themselves in a very difficult situation. I can’t stress enough to never go wheeling alone and be safe.

What is special or unique about your rig?

My rig is a 1990 Jeep Wrangler YJ. It has pretty much been stock since I have owned it. Most recently, I have installed 4-inch Rubicon Express leaf springs, 33-inch tires and, of course, a lot of LEDs. I have not upgraded axles or gears and do not have a locker yet, but I will wheel the hell out of it with the best of them! You don’t need the biggest, baddest Jeep around to have fun or to be one of the big boys.

Can you tell us a Jeeping lesson you had to learn the hard way?

Well, we all learn something when we are newbies. Mine would be to check the depth of the waterhole yourself before you blast through it. In my case we were on a ride and a friend walked through the waterhole to check the depth before I went through it. He must have been walking between the ruts because it didn’t look too bad. I still wasn’t sure if I should try it or go around.

Before I could make my decision, our friend shouted out to me, “Come on, Charlie, are you wearing your wife’s panties today?” So, with that, I went right into the water, right down in the ruts, and sank! The Jeep stalled. The water was up to the top of the seats. The water actually went into the gas fill tube and right into the tank. We had muddy water in the cooler!

My advice is, don’t be intimidated, but do get a snorkel and know what you are getting yourself into.

Please tell us a little about the Trail Monkeys.

Our group is based on friendship. We started as a small group of friends who liked to get together, wheel our Jeeps, and help each other work on them. We have grown into a large family. We are family-friendly and do family-oriented things. No one in our group has to worry that they can’t bring their kids, pets or friends. Everything we do, we do as a family.

Dawn and I have four kids ourselves. All are Jeepers and part of the Jeeping community. Our youngest son, Chandler, already has his eye on my Jeep when he turns 16! Besides Jeeping, we do so many other things to involve the families. School events and fundraisers, beach days and BBQs in the summers, and bowling and monster jam in the fall and winter are just a few.

We also take pride in the work we do for our community, such as our big annual holiday charity event. Our purpose is to bring likeminded people and families together. We are also showing our children in the group how important being involved in your community is. We are growing better future adults and leaders. We are showing them what family means and what it means to help your fellow man.

Our motto has always been “No Monkey left behind“ — whether it’s on the trail or in everyday life. Not everything is always Jeep-related. Sometimes life throws a curveball, and it is nice knowing we can count on our family and community.

How long has Trail Monkeys been around, and who were the charter members?

We officially became a club in October 2012. Our first official club event was Jeeptoberfest in Ocala. We had our original custom Trail Monkey shirts made especially for that event. We really turned heads. Our founders were myself, Dawn Scott, Tom Walters and Margaret Murray. At the time, we only had about eight other members besides the founders. We knew this would grow fast — and we sure did — but we have always kept our sense of family in the group.

How many members do you currently have, and what is the process to become a member?

We have 1,700 followers on our open Facebook page for Trail Monkeys 4×4. Most of those followers are local to Florida. We also have a “Bannered Members” page with 60 bannered members and their families. Each bannered member is from Pinellas, Pasco or Hillsborough County areas.

Because we want to maintain our sense of family, we do not focus on how many members or banners we can get. We know all of our bannered members and most of our followers. We ask that new potential members get to know us and we get to know them. We have a 30-day grace period for getting to know each other. We would not want anyone to put a banner on their Jeep to then discover we are not the right fit for them or for us to discover they are not the right fit for us.

We also require potential bannered members to attend at least two events and one trail ride. Once those requirements have been met, our board will take a vote to banner. We do not charge dues to our members. We decided that dues just aren’t the right thing for our club. If there are things we need, such as our banner or something we want to raise money for, we will hold a raffle or event to raise the money.

We take great pride in our Trail Monkey name. We like to know who is representing us and we want our members to feel confident that we are maintaining an upstanding image in the community. We have an amazing board that helps with monitoring the pages, planning events and working the events. Our board consists of myself, the president, my wife Dawn, our vice president, Steve Levine, Melissa Levine, Logan Templeton and Amanda Wilhite. They make a great team.

Nuts and Bolts

Charles Scott is the founder and president of the Trail Monkeys Jeep club, a licensed horticulture technician and owner of Monkey Grips Paracord Accessories. His 60-banner group focuses on:

  • Family-friendly activities and events
  • Local and regional charity work
  • Outreach to other Jeep clubs

What sets your group apart from the other clubs?

Even though we are 95% made up of Jeeps, we are not a Jeep-only club. We have several other vehicles in the group. We feel the “Wheel what ya got” motto, and we don’t discriminate. We have Toyotas, Fords and even a Suzuki bannered. We love our family members no matter what they drive. That’s what sets us apart.

Do you have group trail rides?

We try to have at least one club ride per month. Logan Templeton and Stephen Lamonte are our trail ride coordinators. They help plan and schedule rides into our calendar. We also have members who will just throw together a ride just to get out. We have had times where there are several rides in a month and times that with all of the other events happening that it is difficult to get a ride together.

Are these trail rides available to Jeepers of all levels of experience?

Yes, most of our rides are okay for all levels of experience. If we host a ride that we feel may be a bit challenging for a new Jeeper, we will make sure that is posted, and if they decide they want the challenge, we make sure we have a more skilled Jeeper assist with spotting and coaching through the obstacles to ensure our new Jeeper has an enjoyable and safe ride.

Do you provide training for your members?

On each ride, we make sure we know who our new riders are and their skill level. We provide spotting and coaching before, during and after the rides to ensure our new members have a safe and enjoyable ride.

We have some members who are Community Emergency Response Team-certified, and we offer members who would like to join the CERT team the information they need to get started. I am also a first responder with the City of Largo and am CPR-certified. We teach our members how to recover properly and how to use their recovery gear.

What other type of activities do you have for your members?

Because we are a family-oriented club, we make sure we do many family-oriented events. We have several events that we do every year to give back to our communities.

Two of our favorite events are Wreaths Across America and Flags for the Fallen. These two events are very special to us. We started doing Wreaths Across America when one of our veteran members, Ron Mason, brought it to our attention. He used to own a motorcycle before his Jeep, and he would ride in the convoy each year to escort the wreaths from the Walmart Distribution Center to the Florida National Cemetery, where he would then help distribute the wreaths.

When he sold his motorcycle and got his Jeep, he still wanted to be involved with the event. It took a lot of convincing, but he finally convinced Walmart and the Veteran Motorcyclists to let us into the convoy with our Jeeps. Trail Monkeys 4×4 was invited for the first time ever to attend the convoy with the police, motorcycles, and semi-trucks to escort the wreaths. We place the flags at the cemetery each year on Memorial Day as well.

Besides our two favorite things, we also have a Thanksgiving Potluck, Trail Monkey Christmas Light ride and dinner, barbecues, beach days and so much more. We definitely have a busy calendar!

I know the Jeep community is very active in supporting charities. Does your group support any charities?

We as a club support several charities as well as many other clubs’ charity events. A few that we attend each year are Go Topless Day with The Caloosa Jeepers to raise money for Partners in Breast Cancer, Jeepin’ with Judd, Jeepin’ 4 Justice, Krawl’n for the Fallen, Jeeps vs Harleys, Jeeptoberfest, Jeep Beach and Jeepin’ for Toys.

In 2017, with the devastating storms, we helped with a few extra drives to get supplies to Texas, South Florida and Puerto Rico as well. Each year, our club holds a Holiday Charity Event and our members choose a charity for us to donate to. The first year was Wounded Warriors, our second year was Shriners Children’s Hospital, and our third year we chose Suncoast Hospice. Last year we held our event for The Humane Society of Pinellas.

Can you tell us about the Christmas Event your group held in 2017?

In 2017 we held our event for the Humane Society of Pinellas. We saw not only how much the storms affected people but also how devastating it was for the fur babies who lost everything — their families and their warm, dry homes — and then to suddenly be placed into an overcrowded shelter with limited resources that have been stretched thin. We work very hard to limit expenses so that we are able to donate everything we raise back. In 2017, we took in almost 1,000 lbs. of pet food and raised over $6,000!

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

We started this group several years ago. We have seen many come and go, but over the years, this community of Jeepers has come a long way. There was a time when the clubs stuck to themselves and there was not a lot of support among the groups, but now that has all changed. We have all worked very hard to get everyone together and realize we all want the same things. We have become amazing friends, an even bigger family and most of all we have fun, help our communities, and go wheeling!

The Growth of a Giving Community

In May of this year, Alex Perez was made vice president of Tampa Jeep Krewe. As a member since nearly the beginning, and as an admin for most of the group’s existence, Alex is “honored to be a representative of TJK.”

Jeepin’ Central Florida caught up with Alex for a look inside one of Central Florida’s largest Jeepin’ communities. We learned that the group’s reach extends beyond the state of Florida and that TJK has always been about family, philanthropy and four-wheelin’ fun.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how long you have been a Jeeper?

I am a service writer at Jerry Ulm Jeep in Tampa, Fla. I build custom Jeeps. I bought my first Jeep back in 2013. I told myself I was going to leave it stock. I started seeing Jeeps riding around town and was tempted to start modifying mine. Now, I understand the saying: “A Jeep is never done being built.”

Jeep owners start with wanting to do a lift and tires. Then you have Jeepers coming in every Friday to get something else done to their rig. It’s really rewarding to hear an owner’s idea for their completely stock Jeep and take it to the next level for them. It’s great to see the pride they take in it. I’m looking for that smile.

As a veteran Jeeper, what advice would you give to someone new to the activity?

When it comes to upgrading and wheelin’, I like to do it once, do it right, take it slow, and learn from my mistakes. Get everything you can out of that Jeep and you’ll have a great time. People spend ungodly amounts of money because they try to go the cheap way first.

Before you start shopping online or going to your local Jeep shop to start the upgrade process, find a Jeep group. Go see what everyone is running, then tag along on a local ride with what you have. Once you get out on the trail you will learn how capable your rig is in its current state. You will see what type of driver you want to be. This way, when you start the modification phase, you will have an idea of what you want. You might save some money by doing certain things only once.

What kind of Jeep do you have?

I have a 2006 Wrangler TJ. It is the last year they made the TJ body style. It’s my favorite body style, the true Jeep look. I always wanted one, so I’m glad I was able to make the purchase.

What was the most necessary upgrade for your Jeep?

The lift, tires and wheels. That gives the Jeep its personality. You can accentuate it all you want, but that is the base.

What is special or unique about your rig?

If I were set my rig aside from everybody else, I’m not sure. We all have lights and big tires. I built it for myself. It is simply to my liking and fits my needs.

Can you tell us a Jeepin’ lesson you had to learn the hard way?

I’ve had a couple off-road experiences, and I have taught a few classes. Momentum is key. If you do not have momentum, you are not going to make it over the hill and rocks, or through the mud.

The hardest lesson I have learned is from mudding. Mudding breaks a lot of stuff. The mud gets in your seals and always cakes somewhere. I would recommend staying away from mud unless you want to spend a lot of money on your vehicle.

Another thing, play around in two-wheel drive. Start in two-wheel drive and find out what your vehicle is capable of. If necessary, recover in four-wheel drive. If you go in with four-wheel drive, chances are you’re not going to make it out.

What do you have to fix the most?

The most I usually have to fix on my Jeep is the low gas light and the alignment. Nothing big.

Do members get together to work on their Jeeps?

I do a lot of work at my shop because I can, but there are a ton of people who hold wrenching parties. They do lifts, rotate tires, and install aftermarket accessories. It’s a great time for new Jeepers to learn how to do upgrades and repairs on their own.

Please tell me a little about your group, the purpose, and the benefits to your members.

The Tampa Jeep Krewe was founded by first responders and veterans. Our primary focus is to bring all types of Jeepers together, introducing them to enhance their overall Jeep experience. Our second mission is to give back to our awesome community. Last year TJK came together as a group and was able to donate over $23,000 to local charities.

The Tampa Jeep Krewe includes (from left to right) Vice President Alex Perez,
Events Director Gabby Vargas and President Tony Wright.

How long has your group been around, and who were the charter members?

The Tampa Jeep Krewe was officially started on April 28, 2013. After finishing the Jeep parade for Jeep Beach in Daytona, Fla., the original founders, Rob Traynham and his wife, went out for brunch with Terry and John Montaldo, David and Jessica Bass, Larry and Christy Bronson, Brint and Sarah George, Adam Washburn and Darrell Seelochan.

They were talking about how they all wanted to start doing great things in the Jeep community. Seeing they already had a great base group right there at the table, they decided to make it official. They came up with the name for the group that day. They used “K” for “Krewe” because they were all either driving a TJ or a JK, and found it to be neat to have those as initials, hence “TJK.”

Once, back in Tampa, Bob Briskie and Rob decided to come up with a design for a banner to be flown on the front windshield. They researched several fonts and wanted a pirate theme, simply because of Tampa’s history.

Without any of these folks, TJK would never be the group it is today.

How many members do you currently have, and what is the process to become a member?

We currently have around 6,600 followers from all over the U.S. The majority of members are located in Central Florida, about 95%. Since we are not a club, we don’t have any official requirements. The No. 1 unofficial requirement is you must be a good person. We also never wanted to require any dues. We don’t believe in that. You just come hang out. If you like it, join our Facebook group so you can be informed about events and gatherings. If you want to buy a banner or sticker to represent TJK, all the proceeds are for charity.

Is your group family-friendly or is it mainly for adults?

The goal was to have a group that we could bring families around. We wanted children to be able to grow up being involved with it. Our Facebook group page is probably the cleanest and most family-oriented page in the area. We have admins that monitor it daily. Tony Wright, our president, along with Mike Cote, Harvard Jones, Paul Huggins, Dave Meyer, Gabby Vargas, Tonya Braun, Frank Colucci and Ashley Greene, all do their absolute best to make sure our page is free of profanity and focused on family-oriented Jeep topics.

Nuts and Bolts

Alex Perez is vice president of Tampa Jeep Krewe and a service writer at Jerry Ulm Jeep in Tampa, Fla., where he specializes in building custom Jeeps. He is proud to be a part of TJK, which counts more than 6,600 members and raises tens of thousands of dollars for charity every year.

Does TJK host group trail rides, and if so, how many times per year?

We take smaller groups, usually limiting the sign-up spaces to 20. This way, if there is a recovery or something breaks, we aren’t holding up a large group. There’s usually a group every week going out. We are always getting together. We have weekly meetings and get-togethers for dinner at restaurants.

We had a group of people who were camping for a TJK appreciation weekend. There were day and night wheelin’ rides and movies in the evening for the kids. Some smaller groups of TJK members will go out of state. Some have gone as far as Utah. There’s always something going on.

Are these trail rides available to Jeepers of all levels of experience?

Members take it upon themselves to spread the word on what they have learned. We will do an event on Facebook that includes the experience level, how many Jeeps we can take, and who is leading the trail. I have lead groups of all levels — stock Jeeps through advanced rides.

Do you provide any safety and rescue training for your members?

If a member wants to, there’s usually a few Jeep groups that come together to do training. The group originally started as a trained Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). There are certain sections of the group that have chosen to go further with their training and help local law enforcement with search and rescue missions.

I know the Jeep community is very active in supporting charities. Does your group support any charities, and if so, which ones?

We support several. This year, we have supported the Mary Martha House, a domestic violence shelter here in Hillsborough County. A couple times a year we collect gift cards and give them to the children at The Children’s Home in Tampa. During Memorial Day weekend, we place flags on the headstones of our veterans at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Fla. We also return to place wreaths in December.

Our biggest charity of the year is collecting toys to donate to Christmas in July. This is an awesome charity that sees to it that the children who are being treated at the local St. Joseph Children’s Hospital receive a comforting gift or toy during their treatment. This year, over two months, we were able to collect and donate $20,000.

We really enjoy supporting Krawl’n For the Fallen, which is an awesome off-road event held in November. This event is put on by Chrissy Johnson, and all proceeds go to Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS).

Most recently, we were able to put together and send 100 pallets of food and water aid to Puerto Rico. We were fine here in Florida after the hurricanes, but our friends in Puerto Rico were not. We were happy to be able to get that together for them.

Anything to leave our readers with?

I wish I had gotten into the Jeep community when I was younger. You’re not only buying a vehicle, you are buying into a lifestyle and a community of good people. It’s such an awesome vehicle to own.

An Interview with Coty Byers

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how long you have been a Jeeper?

My name is Coty Byers and I am the president of Blackwater Jeepers. I am the father of two smart, beautiful daughters, and I have an addiction to Jeeps. Actually, it’s equally a Jeep addiction as it is an addiction of being around great people. Ironically, I first got into Jeeps because I wanted to get lost in the woods with a couple good friends; many years later, I ended up with way more great friends and less getting lost in the woods.

Either way, I’ve been into different truck and car scenes in my lifetime, but never have I seen such a tight knit community as the one the Jeepers have. I’m sure the only one that compares is the Harley community, in my opinion. I’ve seen the Harley community do some amazing things all over the country and have nothing but respect for these guys. I see the Jeep community going along the same way. There are people in every community in need of a little help up from whatever situation has befallen on them. When you have an audience like both communities do, it’s our responsibility to use that in any positive way we can.

Of course, none of us bought a Jeep or a bike because we wanted to do charity work. What happens, though, is you see a way to have fun while doing something positive for your community. Jeepers in the Tampa Bay area cover a gauntlet of charities and fundraisers; they do really great work. When I decided to start Blackwater Jeepers, I did not want a big group or to do charities. I was looking for a small group of friends to go on trail rides with and simply have fun. We wanted to keep it simple and help individuals in our community, but quietly. We knew we wouldn’t have a big presence and would be unable to cash flow a large charity event or fundraiser, nor did we want to.

Helping individual families have a Christmas became how we were able to help each year. We still do it today and it’s an operation completely funded by members. Last year, we did receive a large and unexpected donation from someone outside the group who found out we had extra families that needed help. If this man and his family did not volunteer, we may not have been able to help those families — this is an example of the amazing people we get to meet every day. Blackwater Jeepers was an idea I came up with when we were trying to decide which group to join. After taking our time hanging out with each group — there were not as many at that time — finding which would be a good fit and events a reasonable distance away, I got to see things in each event and group I liked and some I wasn’t a fan of. Everyone wants to belong to something; I think many people search for a purpose until they stumble on something that just clicks.

This led to the idea of a principled and moral group with one simple goal: to have fun. No BS, no one should feel unwelcome, no one gets judged on a banner or their Jeep, no real rules other than just be a good person. Basic, old-school ways and traditional values mixed with a little new-age thinking, you could say. Trust will be earned but is expected. When you learn to trust your people, you build a loyalty to each other. After that you realize you have more trust and loyalty to these people who were once strangers than you do your own family, so they become your family. These are the people you get up at midnight for because they broke down and cannot get home and you know they would do the same for you. That breeds respect because like any family, you may not like everyone, but you will be respectful to them.

We have a low tolerance for disrespect in this group, and luckily we don’t see it often. But this also had an unexpected surprise: It developed a sense of pride and honor among the members to be part of a bigger picture. Each one flew a banner that cost a few dollars, but was worth a lot more than the vinyl it was printed on. Each member has a say and the members run this group. The entire leadership and its members put in work every day to run this group in the direction the members have asked and communicated to us that they want this ship to sail. We all feel honored to be able to do this and be apart of the entire Jeep community as a whole and contributing while doing what we love. Sounds crazy, I know. But to me, that’s the secret meaning behind “It’s a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand.” Truth is, I hated when I heard people use the word “family.” I thought, “I don’t know these people, much less call them family.” Before we started Blackwater Jeepers, I never understood. Over the years these people come to know more about you than your blood family. Plus, you can’t choose your blood family, but we do get to choose our Jeep families. So, if you own a Jeep and don’t understand what it’s like to have a Jeep family like I once did, you are probably not in the right group.

As a veteran Jeeper, what advice would you give to someone new to the activity?

Some advice I would give to a new Jeeper is simple. Rule No. 1: Never wheel alone. Rule No. 2: Take your time joining a group.

Since you bought a Jeep, you’re obviously looking for adventure. So, find a few friends, or better yet, find a few groups in your area. Even if you never join, you will for sure find some friends to wheel with. Plus, trails are usually better with friends. Again, take your time before joining a group. As I said above, you will find one that fits you and feels right. If not, start your own. It’s not easy, but if your head is in it for the right reasons and you look after your people and your community, you will find people who want to join — but it doesn’t happen overnight.

Can you tell us a Jeeping lesson you had to learn the hard way?

A lesson I’ve learned the hard way is not every hole will be as deep as it was the last time you came through. Trails can change as the weather changes. Don’t assume, take safety equipment on the trails, do not wheel alone, and understand how to use all of your recovery equipment. I’ve been on recovery missions that lasted eight hours, so pack a snack.

We once had a vehicle stranded deep in the woods with water halfway up the doors. It weighed about 6,500 pounds on dry land, so between the mud and water, our Jeep was not much help. We used pulleys to fraction the weight. That helped a lot, but there was a hidden rut. At about this time there was a girl that started getting dizzy because her sugar level had dropped. So we were now using pulleys and a high lift jack to get this rig out. Long story short, we used every bit of recovery gear we had and still could have used more. Also, apparently, snacks. The girl was fine, by the way.

Please tell me a little about your group, the purpose, and the benefits to your members.

Blackwater Jeepers was originally started in 2013, but we decided to join an international charter in 2014. We became the very first United States chapter for this group. The purpose was to help join the national and international Jeepers together and allow everyone to work together on goals to help each chapter contribute to their hometown community — at least, that was the plan.

Unfortunately, sometimes the leadership in many cases grows an ego that forgets the original goal and loses focus. As too many do, they put money over people and members lose every time. We wanted to support our local vendors and sponsors, but they wanted everything purchased through them. One thing about the Jeep community is that it’s huge and small at the same time. What I mean is, though we are everywhere, it doesn’t take long to be called out if you’re not doing things for the right reasons. Most of us want to look out for Jeepers — not someone’s bank account.

How long has your group been around, and who were the charter members?

We originally started with about eight charter members. Unfortunately, life happens and, over time, we have lost six of the original eight members. Other than a couple, we have never lost a member we wanted to keep. When it’s time, it’s time, and like any group, there are people who get egos, want to profit, or take advantage of a member. These types of people are not a good fit in this group.

The ones that currently run the core of this group have been here from the beginning and have kept this ship on course through some turbulent times. These people include Al Feliz, Carolyn Albritton, Belinda Vazquez and, of course, Billi Gibson. Carolyn recently stepped down, but the rest remain.

Al Feliz has recently been made vice president and has been here for this group and its members day in and day out. Al is one of the biggest reasons this group has come this far. We all work as a team, regardless of how tough each situation is. Al and I have argued tooth and nail about things, but every single time we realized in the end we wanted to hit the same goals, we just have two different ways to get there. I told him at the very beginning that I didn’t promote him to just agree with me; I promoted him because he doesn’t agree with me on certain things and that helps this group and its members. Al is passionate about our community, so he never gives up.

Finding solutions to problems when you have complete trust, loyalty and respect for each other means you won’t give up just because you can’t agree, allowing you to find an even better answer to the problem every time and never have a member quit because they disagreed. With that and the entire leadership team — from the ones that welcome people to our public page every single day to the treasurer that keeps our finances straight, the event coordinators that keep our calendar organized and our trail bosses that make every group ride safe and a learning experience — no one person runs this group.

I have the honor of being called the “captain,” but this group runs like a well-oiled machine. It takes a team and the members are like our clients. If they are not happy, then we are not doing our job. In addition, years ago, I set up a private chat with all the local groups in and around our area and invited the president and vice president from each group to join in. This allowed all of us to better communicate issues before they became a problem. Plus, it helped us support each other’s events and learn to work together for all of our members. It has helped us find and pinpoint any specific person in our community that continues to be an issue and remove him or her from all groups if they continue to stir up trouble. I know this has really helped our group understand issues that are simply miscommunicated before it becomes a major issue.

How many members do you currently have, and how does one become a member?

We have never published how many members we currently have. The reason is that we’ve never wanted to be a numbers club. I will say, we originally never wanted to get bigger than 30 or 40 members, but we passed that long ago. It’s not about numbers here; it’s about the people. We have never lost a person we have wanted to keep. We’ve had to tighten down a few times over the years to slow people from joining.

Currently, we require new probation members to be sponsored by a current member, attend at least two events, and attend at least two trail rides. The entire purpose is that you cannot learn enough about a group nor can these members learn enough about you by only meeting a couple times. You have to check us out, just as we need to know we can trust you around our family and kids. We are a wheeling Jeep family, so of course we want to see you on the trails — not just a parking lot. Our members range in age, but they are all mature enough to respect their fellow members and their club.

Do you have group trail rides, and if so, how many times per year?

We currently average about three or four trail rides per month. Depending on months with a lot of other events going on, we typically do night rides or cookouts. Because many of these rides will include a trained trail boss, they are open to everyone and beginner Jeepers and probation members are encouraged to join.

Our trail bosses assist in recovery while on the trails and help teach new Jeepers proper techniques when winching as well as how to tread lightly to help keep these areas clean and open for the future. Our kids learn in the process, so we hope to continue this further in the future. We also try and remind members on our members-only page — along with our public pages — to practice safety on the trail, stay on trail, respect property, and try to hold safety-recovery classes on occasion to give Jeepers hands-on training.

What other type of activities do you have for your members?

Our group makes excuses to hang out together. We have fun doing anything from wrench parties at someone’s house to shooting at an outdoor range a member has access to. Cookouts are our favorite, but we also meet for dinners, attend events and fairs together, go fishing, and do pretty much anything we can find that gives us a reason to meet up.

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

All in all, I would like to say thank you to Jeepin’ Central Florida for what you are doing. It’s been a really fun and cool experience so far working with you all and meeting your families. Seeing that you are also Jeepers goes a long way. As I said, we joined an international chapter to communicate and see the news of other groups around the country and even other countries. I look forward to seeing this magazine grow in hopes this can be our way to see what other communities are doing.

There are so many great things happening that we hear very little about unless it’s on social media. Having one outlet to see the Jeepers up north pulling out stranded motorists during snowstorms, Jeepers coming together during floods to get elderly their medicine or get doctors and nurses to the hospital, seeing Jeepers help find and recover missing people in the forests — this is what grows public trust and strengthens this community.

I also want to thank all the members of Blackwater Jeepers for pulling together all these years and stepping up every single time they’ve been asked. For everything you have done over the years for people who needed a helping hand and for not publishing it for attention. You’ve done these things because it was right and you did it knowing no one would ever know, and these individuals could never repay you. That shows your character and I’m honored to work everyday with each of you. You have all made this group what it is today, no matter how long you have been here.