Our Island Neighbors -- Jaime Huffman
When Salty Sam's announced the arrival of their new Marketing Director Jaime Huffman, the local media focused on her experiences on the hit CBS series 'Survivor'. She spent nearly two months proving herself on a desolate, dangerous island, and somehow, after a long and winding road in her young life, ended up on another island altogether, right here.
A strikingly beautiful young woman, Jaime is typical of so many of the Carolina women we have encountered in literature and in real-life: a sweet, minty confection with a tiny slice of jalapeno pepper in the center. She is very personable and gracious, and speaks with a soft Southern lilt. But as she talks about her life's adventures, her intelligence, capabilities and guts really tell the story.
Jaime was born in Florida, and spent the first fifteen years of her life in Fort Lauderdale. "I grew up by the ocean. There was a joke about me when I was a kid that my back was always tan and my face was always white because I spent hours with my snorkel, bent over the water looking for shells."
All that changed when, at fifteen, Jaime and her family moved just outside of Charleston, South Carolina. "It was really hard at first because, although we had the mountains and went camping and all, it was a 300 mile trip to the coast, so we would only go once a year.I was a Girl Scout my whole life, and I love being outdoors. But I don't do well with the cold. Winters there were always hard for me."
Being the go-getter she is, Jaime quickly found an outlet for her energy and drive by earning a slot on the varsity softball team in her freshman year of high school, a year earlier than most make it to that level. She started off as the shortstop, but the team really needed a good catcher, and her best friend, the pitcher on the team, suggested she train for that position. Jaime's dad was very supportive, and found a former Major League Baseball catcher to train her. "I was also a very good hitter, and I was very fast, so I could steal bases."Varsity softball remained a favorite outlet for Jaime throughout her high school years.
After graduation, she was off to the University of South Carolina, home of the Gamecocks football team, where Jaime majored in Public Relations and Marketing. While her studies were important, Jaime says that she was a huge Gamecocks fan. "Funny story... when I went to LA for my 'Survivor' interview I had a Gamecock hat on... it was camouflage with the word 'Cocks' in pink letters on the front. I got some very interesting looks and then I realized I was not in South Carolina and the people there didn't understand. I mean, they were wondering what my message was," she says with a laugh. "I had to explain it to them." No doubt.
A friend at USC, whose mother was a casting director for the film industry in the Charleston area, saw Jaime's photo on Facebook and thought she would work as a stand-in for actress Catherine Keener, who was working on a major motion picture at the time. Keener's regular stand-in was unable to work due to illness, and they needed someone to fill the bill quickly.When the idea was proposed to Jaime, she went on line to find out exactly what a stand-in is expected to do."I learned that they go on the set before the actual shoot, and stand where the actor would stand, wearing the colors the actor will be wearing, and the crew sets up the lights and the camera angles. When I saw that I thought, 'I could do that.' So she did. A lot of stand-in work followed.
"I spoke to a lot of people on the sets where I worked, and one of the girls was a casting director for 'Survivor'. She thought I'd be really good on that show, and suggested it to me. She came to my house to make an audition tape, and sent it to LA. Within a week I got a call. They flew me out and I was there in interviews for about 7 days. I met with Mark Burnett, the Executive Producer.At that time they were doing 'Survivor at Sea' which would take place entirely on a ship, and after all was said and done, they told me I was 'too nice' for that show. I was pretty bummed, and flew back home, and figured that was that. But then a few weeks later, they called about the regular 'Survivor' series, which was good because that was what I had wanted to do in the first place. So, they flew me back out to LA for another week of interviews. That's when I met Jeff Probst, one of the show's producers and the host. Things went really, really well, and then I found out I was going to be on 'Survivor - China' (Season 15), which was filmed in 2007."
Taking a semester off from USC, Jaime and her fellow cast mates began their trek to a remote island in the Jiansu Province of China by way of a flight to Beijing, another flight to Shanghai, an overnight train to Nanchung, another train to a tiny village, and then a boat ride to the island itself. One might speculate that the lengthy, multi-legged trip was worthy of 'Survivor' status itself. Describing the experience leading up to the actual taping of the show, Jaime says, "They don't start taping the show right away; they give you about a week to adjust, to get over jet lag and to acclimate yourself to the environment. The cast is not allowed to speak to each other during that entire first week, because the producers don't want any alliances or relationships formed before the taping starts." A few days after their arrival, the cast was brought into a room lined with cases full of poisonous snakes indigenous to the region. "They had a snake handler there who told us not to go near any of these snakes. At that moment I thought to myself, 'What have I signed myself up for?' Everybody, even the guys, looked a little fearful when they saw the bamboo viper." Although no one in the cast ever had to be evacuated for a snakebite, Jaime did cross paths with some sort of strange insect. "My finger turned purple and went numb. It scared me a little as I watched it swelling and turning colors, but they wrapped it and it went away." Another scare was when one of the cast members passed out from heat stroke. "Her eyes rolled to the back of her head and that scared the heck out of me. I was not okay when that happened. It really shook me up."
One member of Jaime's 'tribe' was another USC student and fellow Carolinian, Erik Huffman."We became best friends as we got to know each other on the show. He's from Greenville and I grew up in Spartanburg." During the course of the show, Jaime joked with him, "If you do anything horrible to me, I'm gonna tell your mom", a warning that works well on just about any man from South Carolina. "We didn't date while we were on the show, but we gravitated toward each other - we understood each other's backgrounds."
Soon after they got back to the States, Erik and Jaime got together to hang out one day. "We went to the mall to buy clothes - both of us had lost so much weight on the show, we needed to find things that would fit." Jaime says the outing was strange for both of them. She explains, "When you come home from the 'Survivor' show, most cast members experience what they call 'Survivor paranoia' because it's so strange being around large groups of people after being on this deserted island."Being among throngs of shoppers left them both a little shaky. After finding what they needed, Jaime and Erik met up with his parents at a Mexican restaurant for dinner. Meeting the parents on the first date sounds like a pretty fast track. "Well, the funny thing is we didn't think of it as a date then, just two good friends getting together. But we realized that we really liked each other. I mean, we grew up 30 miles apart from each other and met in China... God had fun with our plans," Jaime says with a smile.
On April 4th of 2009, Erik and Jaime tied the knot in Charleston. Two ex-cast members, and 'tribe-mates' of 'Survivor' getting married was noteworthy and covered by People magazine. Jaime 'Googled' her wedding during this interview and up popped beautiful pictures of the event.
Erik was already working in Nashville, so off they went to start their new life. "I got a job as Coordinator of Public Relations for Mercy Ministries, a non-profit that helps disadvantaged women - abuse victims and their children. I always had a heart for kids' issues, and I majored in Public Relations, so it was a perfect fit. It was wonderful. After that, I went to work for CBS in Nashville. My boss was in LA, and I was a casting director for 'Amazing Race' and 'Survivor'.A ton of my people got on the show.As a matter of fact, the upcoming season has a cast member I found for the show." Jaime says it was easy to find people for the shows. "The show's producers love Southern people because we have accents and characters, and pretty blonde girls (like Jaime). I loved that work. I got to go out to LA and help the executives with the whole casting process. I was 23 or 24 at the time, and that was a pretty heady experience. I was the youngest one on the production staff. It was an incredible learning experience for me."
Erik, an accomplished musician, had already been living in Nashville before their marriage because he had plenty of band and session work there. He plays bass, acoustic guitar and sings. You can find him at Big Game Sports Bar on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays doing his solo act. But his biggest fan is Jaime and Erik's two-year-old son Harper, who loves to hear his daddy play and sing. "When Erik comes home at the end of his day, studying to earn his degree in Physical Therapy at Edison State, Harper runs and grabs Erik's guitar case, drags it across the floor and says, "Sing Daddy!" Erik has learned to play the ABC song and the Elmo song to please his son. And Harper may be a budding musician too, although, Jaime notes, "I don't have any musical abilities
Happy in Nashville for nearly two years, Jaime got a call from home; her mother had Stage 4 larynx cancer and was told she had about five months left. "A few weeks later, we found out I was pregnant." It was time to go back to Carolina. "When my mom heard I was pregnant, she decided she wanted to live to see her grandchild.So she went to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. She started getting experimental chemo and drugs to try to beat the cancer, and it worked.She is still with us. She can't speak; she lost her voice in the process, which is frustrating for her.But we're all just grateful she's had time with her grandson."
After Harper was born, Jaime spent a year at home, focused on giving him a good start. But it became clear that he needed to expand his horizons. So she found a daycare for him, and started her own marketing business that she operated very successfully out of her home.
In light of the circumstances with her mother, and her personal successes in business, it seems odd that Jaime and Erik relocated to Southwest Florida in January this year. "The craziest thing is my dad got transferred to Boca Raton this past November. So that was a huge factor when we started looking at places where Erik could go to school. I didn't want to be in Boca, but this is close enough where we can get together with my parents, Erik can attend school, and I can work at a job I love."
Which brings us to her new position as the Marketing Director for Salty Sam's Waterfront Adventures - an umbrella company including Parrot Key Restaurant, Big Game Sports Bar, Pieces of Eight Pirate Cruises, and Salty Sam's Marina. Asked how that came to be, Jaime recounted the steps that led her to San Carlos Island.
With Erik already here doing school interviews, and knowing she would need to find a job when they relocated, Jaime began trolling through Craigslist for jobs in the area, and came upon an ad for a marketing director. "Well, it's a God thing again. I called the number, and found out that they had already done all the interviews, but Matt (Hanson, one of the owners of the company) said he would hold off making a decision until I could come in and talk with him." After speaking with Matt, and then Darrell Hanson, it was obvious the interview process was a success. "It was pure faith when I came in for the interview.And when I arrived, I was just blown away. I thought 'Wow, this is my dream job'. Looking out the window of Jaime's office, with a view of Estero Bay, and the gently swaying masts sprouting up along the docks, one can readily see why Jaime says, "I just love this place."
Her enthusiasm for her new job is infectious. "My goal here is to get the public and everyone around to know what a wonderful facility Salty Sam's is. You could spend your whole day here with your family. It has become a destination. You rent a boat, go on the pirate cruise, grab a great meal, go shopping. We've got a new ice cream shop that just opened in January featuring Love Boat ice cream." Jaime says whether you are with your family, or just out for a date or a good time with friends, Salty Sam's can provide a day's worth of fun. Everyone associated with the company is also very excited about The Ebbtide project that is working its way through the permitting and approval process, which when completed will, among other things, provide the area with a substantial increase in job opportunities. "All of us at Salty Sam's are very happy about that," Jaime relates while talking about the enhancements she feels this development will bring to our beach community.
When asked how life in Southwest Florida is shaping up for her family, Jaime smiles and shares all the qualities that make it ideal for them. "Living in Carolina, and then Nashville, when it got cold, I just felt like I was missing a part of my heart - the water, the beach, the ocean. I already feel I am back in my comfort zone, and I want that for Harper. I was a beach baby; that's what brought me a lot of joy growing up. There's just so much you can enjoy as a family here. And it's so cost-effective. I mean, what better way as a young family to save money than to go to the beach for the day? It's just really nice to have that."
Just recently, Jaime, Erik and Harper spent the weekend on Fort Myers Beach."It's the first time we've had a whole weekend together as a family since we moved here. It was wonderful."After the first day, Harper woke up Sunday morning asking his parents to take him to "my ocean"."When we got to the sand, Harper ran to the Gulf and shrieked with delight, while doing a "happy feet" dance at the edge of the water, then threw handfuls and handfuls of sand," a two-year-old's answer to beach nourishment. "He loves it. He's just a natural born beach kid."
As their faith is a central theme of their lives, finding the Summit Church in Fort Myers has helped Jaime's family round out their life here. "It was very important to us." And Harper is enrolled at the Evangelical Christian Preschool, where Jaime and Erik feel Harper will be among people who share their values. "He is really happy there."
Like so many people who have come to live and work in our community, Jaime Huffman feels right at home, and has had no trouble settling right in to our way of life. Both she and her husband have found outlets for personal interests, their son is thriving, and Jaime has found her dream job."I love working here."
Welcome home, Jaime.