Brandon Sweeney was determined to chart his own course.
At 22, he had put some hard years behind him, secured a good job and a place of his own. As soon as he paid down his debt, he thought, he could take college classes.
Then suddenly in August, that prospect seemed closer than ever.
He qualified for a loan, an email told him. It could help wipe out his debt, get ahead on bills, and afford college – all with easy payments.
Several weeks later, he was sitting in his car, shaking – thousands deeper in the hole, with no way to make his rent.
A promising sign
Brandon grew up in Buffalo, in a blue-collar region devoted to Bills football and Sabres hockey.
After graduation, he grappled for years with depression and anxiety from a difficult childhood and struggled to get his bearings. He lived with relatives while trying to find his way, setting fitness goals to maintain good physical and mental health.
Two years ago he set out for Florida to stay in Sarasota with a sister who is a mother figure to him.
He got a job at a bagel shop, making $10 an hour, walking 45 minutes one way, sometimes in the rain or 95-degree heat.
Between work, he spent time with his sister and doted on his baby niece, changing her diapers and taking her to Ringling Park or Lido Beach once he bought a car. They baked cookies together. He was her “Uncle B.”
Money was tight, but the three of them were family.
“We just had each other, and it was more than enough,” he said.
Brandon continued to set goals, while watching motivational videos online and reading classics, like Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s "Crime and Punishment."
In the summer of 2021, he got a place of his own – a studio apartment in Sarasota for $840 a month.
By this summer, Brandon had worked his way up to $14 an hour at the bagel shop, but his monthly rent had climbed to $909. And he was still putting off college – by now interested in a business degree, specializing in finance.
When someone emailed him in August, telling him he qualified for a loan, Brandon was excited about the opportunity to move forward with his life.
He looked up the name of the agency online and read good reviews.
There were plenty of red flags, he would later recall, like the tone of the supposed loan representative – getting more assertive with each call. Then he was told they had to test his banking information.
Brandon forwarded several thousand dollars from his bank cards, promised it would be sent back.
“I really wanted this loan,” he said.
As the supposed representative kept calling, pressuring him to send more, Brandon's sister got wind of what was happening and grew suspicious.
"It's a scam," she tried to tell Brandon.
Brandon stayed optimistic, believing it was real.
But when he went into his mobile banking app and saw reversals on major transactions, his heart sank. His mind was racing, exacerbating his anxiety.
His money was gone. And the promised loan nowhere in sight.
Instead, Brandon was on the hook for thousands of dollars – a victim of what’s known as predatory payday loan scams.
A little bit of hope
By mid-September, Brandon was mired in debt. Instead of taking college courses, he was holding a second job – this one at a donation center for Goodwill Manasota.
His bank forgave some of the charges from the fraud, but not all of it. He still owed several thousand dollars.
“I was making payments, and on top of that, I still have my bills that I have to pay,” he said.
The setback quickly caught up with him. He realized he would not have enough for rent. He knew the property management policy: after a grace period, an eviction notice would be placed on his door.
“I was sitting in my car and feeling helpless,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
After he called his new boss at Goodwill, she set up an appointment with his Good Partner Coach, Deshane Collins.
As a life coach, Collins set out to get to know Brandon – his goals and hopes and dreams for the future. Collins was struck by Brandon’s work ethic and determination. He also knew that Brandon just needed a bit of guidance and a re-set.
“When you give someone a little hope, they usually can solve their own problems,” Collins added.
When he learned about the fraud, he helped Brandon apply to Season of Sharing – which covered October’s rent.
“The first step is to get rid of this financial stress and give him some breathing room. Before he can even start to see self-actualization, it was important to get that stress off of him, to destroy that barrier,” Collins said.
Collins’ encouragement and guidance were instrumental – as was the financial boost from Season of Sharing, which helped him get caught up.
So was his sister’s belief in him.
“She won’t give up on me,” he said.
Brandon still has the debt to pay off and college is now a little further away. But he believes the keys to his success lie ultimately in his own positive mindset.
For the moment, he enjoys every minute he can with his sister and his niece, who is now 3. He wants to be the role model for her that his sister has always been for him. For that, there is no price too high to pay.
“Definitely as messy as it gets,” he said, “family is probably the most important part of my life.”
***To see the story as it originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Dec. 14, 2022, here.
Photo by Thomas Bender, Sarasota Herald-Tribune