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Made in the Mother Lode:
For entrepreneur Rhonda Sparks, the legacy of her late husband — who died of skin cancer at age 32 — is a product designed to help thousands of others avoid the same fate.
The Sonora woman in mid-2005 launched UV Skinz, a clothing business specializing in shirts, shorts, hats and other sun-time swim wear made of specially-treated fabric that she said provides 98 percent protection from harmful sun rays.
The business in its first year sold more than 3,400 children’s shirts. About 25,000 were sold the next year. Sparks predicts that about 50,000 shirts and other sun protection wear for adults, children and babies will be sold, mostly in the United States and Canada, this year.
The concept for the business dates to 2000, four years after husband Darren Farwell had been diagnosed with melanoma, a deadly skin cancer, Sparks said. This made them acutely aware of the sun-related health risks. Then, while vacationing in Hawaii, they had trouble finding adequate sun protection for their three young sons.
So they discussed the notion of creating a line of clothing kids could swim in that would also protect them from sun burns and even secured an Internet address, www.uvskinz.com.
Farwell died Sept. 14, 2001. Sparks said she, in turn, devoted the next two years to her sons and her other ongoing business, Sparks Communications, an audio conferencing service for business customers, before returning to the UV Skinz concept. Despite her already ample business experience, she recalled, launching a line of specialty clothing was new territory for her.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” she said and laughed. But Sparks credited fellow members of a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneurial group in which she participates with providing valuable pointers. Plenty of Internet research also provided invaluable, she added, and was how she found a man in Australia who put her in touch with a Chinese factory that now makes UV Skinz products.
Sparks and the clothing company’s three employees market the clothing — ranging in price from $24 to $48 — on line and at various clothing trade shows.
The growing company in now planning its 2009 line, which will include beach cover-ups for women, beach pants and one piece outfits for babies.
Since May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, as designated by the American Skin Cancer Society, Sparks said that her company is also giving any customer who buys an item from the Web site a free UV Skinz swim shirt.
About this “Made in the Mother Lode” business:
What product, unique service or program do you make or sell?
UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) protective swim shirts for babies, kids and adults.
How did you come up with the idea for this:
I lost my 32-year-old husband to skin cancer. We would bring rash guards (swimwear designed for surfers) home from Hawaii as souvenirs and realized how hard this product is to find. We combined that with our concern to get kids covered with demand and started UV Skinz.
How did you actually make it ready to sell or market?
We did two years of research to find out what consumers wanted in a swim shirt, then came up with a great design and found a manufacturer.
What were your challenges and how did you overcome them?
Running a business with three small boys. Being met with such enthusiasm for our product by so many market segments but not having the budget to pursue them all. We had to channel our efforts and remember that our main mission was to “get kids covered” all over the nation.
If you knew then what you knew now, would you still have gone through the process?
Absolutely. At the end of the day, it’s about protecting our children. We promote safe, healthy living under the sun. What better business is there to be in than that!
Where is your product sold?
Online and several dozen retain locations throughout the U.S. and Canada. Locally at SNAC (Sierra Nevada Adventure Company in Sonora and Arnold) The Pinecrest General Store, Mountain Sage in Groveland, American Sports Acro Sports and Gym near Standard and The Club in East Sonora.
How important is the Internet in building your business?
Vital. Our Web site is one of the most important marketing tools we have, both to promote our products and to educate consumers about the dangers of the sun.
Any advice for someone with an idea for a new product or service?
Follow your passion and the success will come.
To what or whom do you credit your success?
Always being told by those most influential in my life that I can do anything I set my mind to in combination with pure self motivation to make a difference in the world.
Woman turns loss into a cause
Rhonda Sparks-Farwell didn't realize her husband would die from what started as a seemingly harmless mole.
When he told her he had skin cancer, she assumed doctors could just remove the blemish.
After they did, the family went about their lives as they did before.
"We were just so ignorant to the causes of skin cancer and how deadly it can be," said Sparks-Farwell, a Sonora resident.
Then melanoma reappeared as a lump on his neck.
At age 32, Darren Farwell died of the cancer.
Since then, Sparks-Farwell has turned the tragedy into a cause.
She started a nonprofit organization, the DLF Foundation, in honor of her late husband and holds a yearly fund-raiser called "Slide for the Cure" at Dodge Ridge.
Now, she's taking the cause a step further.
Recently, she began a business called UV Skinz with the help of two other people, making children's shirts that protect their skin from UV rays.
The nylon and Lycra shirts - long-sleeved or short-sleeved - have the same feel as a swim suit, but are made of a fabric that provides an Ultraviolet Protection Factor of 50 - or 98 percent protection from the sun.
Cotton or non-treated clothing doesn't offer the same protection — especially when wet, Sparks-Farwell said.
Her shirts come in a variety of colors, including camouflage, hot pink and tie-dye. She plans to sell the long-sleeved ones for $23 and the short-sleeved shirts for $20.
A drawing that her son, Seth, did at school of a sun with a spiral in the center has become part of the company's logo.
Sparks-Farwell first had the idea after buying for her three boys shirts in Hawaii that surfers wear to protect themselves from rash. At the time, the shirts weren't marketed as sun protection.
"It was just a way for my kids to not be slathered in sun screen every three to four hours," she said.
When they returned, people asked about the shirts and how to get them, but Sparks-Farwell discovered they were difficult to find.
She began researching, attempting to find a way to produce them as sun blockers. Her research ultimately led her to a man with a factory in China.
He makes the shirts for sale in Australia — a market more conscientious of sunburn's consequences, Sparks-Farwell said.
The Australian Radiation Laboratory tests the the shirt fabric to make sure it indeed has a high sun-protection factor.
Now that her business is up and running, Sparks-Farwell hopes to make the shirts readily available to more people.
Her own sons already sport her product when swimming or playing in the sun.
"My boys feel naked without them," she said. "It's just part of their bodies."
Children have been her first focus because kids under age 15 who get sunburned have double the chance of developing skin cancer as an adult, Sparks-Farwell said.
She is ordering, however, a shipment of UV Skins for adults and babies as well.
She's spoken with area vendors such as Sierra Nevada Adventure Company, based in Arnold and Sonora, and Sonora Sports and Fitness about carrying them. They will also eventually be for sale online.
The business is in addition to Sparks Communications, a conference calling service Sparks-Farwell has run for nine and a half years.
UV Skinz has provided a new experience for her as she goes from a service-oriented business to one based on product sales. She's also learning marketing and public relations, as opposed the word-of-mouth method she's relied on in the past.
The marketing director of her company, Tim McCaffrey, has been helping her with several facets of the new business. They are also joined by Renee Sedoo, who's husband died of cancer as well.
Although UV skins is a business venture, the goal for Sparks- Farwell is not necessarily to make money.
"It's horrible loosing my husband, and I would like it if I could stop that from happening to another family," she said.