Jackie Dzugen will do almost anything to give her sons, Ben and Josh, every opportunity to excel.
The single mom from Brooksville raised her two boys, now 20 and 17, alone after their father, a captain with the Hillsborough County Fire Department, was killed 12 years ago in a line of duty. She has always put their needs first, instilling in them the ambition to work every opportunity to build a strong future.
Ben stood inside the coral shop he and his mother just opened in the former Hernando Today Plaza just three weeks ago. Surrounded by massive tanks of live corals, tropical salt-water fish and other live sea creatures, mother and son laugh at recent memories of getting the store ready for customers.
"It took four months of everyone pitching in to prepare the tanks, stands, counters, all hand-made," said Jackie, "as well as the weeks it took to prepare the floor."
Ben is a full-time college student, studying marine biology. He, his mother, and his younger brother are divers and hobbyists of coral and salt-water fish. In fact, both Ben and Josh have been diving since they were very young. They're mother has been collecting, cutting, and raising corals for years. The underwater world is in their blood.
So when Ben needed an internship to apply toward his college credit, Jackie did some research and realized that opening a business would be a great solution. He could work toward his education requirements while to also instilling the work ethic that comes from running a business.
Jackie is no stranger to the character traits necessary to succeed in small business. She and her friend and business partner, Jeanette Bellingar and Jennifer, opened the business next door eight years ago.
"I basically worked from home," Jackie said. She is currently involved in several projects that keep her bouncing from one task to the next. Adding another wasn't in her immediate plan. But she jumped on the idea with Ben completely onboard.
They weren't necessarily looking to make a lot of money, she said. Yet the clearer the idea became, the quicker the picture began to change into what has already become a viable option for hobbyists like them. It took on a life of its own.
So the family set to work revamping a former real estate office into a small undersea word with a hand-made coral reef in the center of the store. The store's perimeters are surrounded with tanks of colorful coral frags in various sizes, shapes and types, many cut from larger pieces that they grow in their home.
Various species of salt-water fish coast in and out of the pieces, engaging in their own unique communities.
"They are their own colonies," Jackie said. "They play games and interact as if it were their own civilization."
Some even race each other, she said, practicing at certain times of the day and gaining speed. "It's amazing to watch," she said.
As the store began to grow, the entire family got involved. Josh now comes in to run the store whenever he can take a break from the demands of high school and his football obligations. Both sons brought their girlfriends in, Taylor and Rebecca, who do what they can to help build the business.
Even Jeanette's eight year old granddaughter, MacKenzie, is often spending time in the store, talking to customers and helping with tasks.
Their soft opening just three weeks ago brought customers from all over the county and other areas throughout the Nature Coast and further south. It appears there are many in the community who share in this family's passion.
Ocean Prime Corals has everything needed to either begin a brand new aquarium or add to an existing unit. They carry coral frags, unique varieties of saltwater fish, and even sell the saltwater they custom make and store in large tanks inside the store.
They also offer guidance and are available to help at any level of the process.
And that's OK with mother and son who both said sharing their passion for underwater life was their purpose all along. While they hope the business will bring in financial rewards, they care more about assisting those with the transitioning of perhaps a healthy curiosity into a real passion.
Visiting Ocean Prime Corals is as much an educational experience, especially for those who have never seen the corals up close. They also have a few fascinating creatures, like some Mantis shrimp, that have the power to break a finger in half. "They are as strong as a 22 caliber," Jackie said.
The mascot of the store is in fact a pet Mantis shrimp that the family rescued while shopping at a fish store out of town. Geronimo was in a very small container, Jackie said, which was not fit for him. Ben and Josh urged their mother to take the shrimp home. He is now part of the family.