Thomas Terwilliger doing a back flip. (Ari Snider/KFSK)

For kids and teenagers, working a summer job is a common way to pay for college, help support your family, or just make some extra cash. But what if you’re not old enough to get a real job? Here in Petersburg, one young entrepreneur has developed a unique side gig. KFSK’s Ari Snider reports. 

It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon in downtown Petersburg. A few tourists amble slowly up the sidewalk. Cannery workers come out for a break. Nearly all the shops are closed. But eleven-year-old Thomas Terwilliger is hard at work. Doing back flips. 

“Yeah I’ve been doing a back flip for about two years, I’ve been showing people around town,” Terwilliger said. “I’ve been going around getting money from doing it.”

The business model is pretty simple. Find something to jump off, like a railing or a dumpster, then hang out and ask anyone who walks past if they’d like to see a flip for a dollar. 

Terwilliger keeping an eye out for potential customers. (Ari Snider/KFSK)

Terwilliger has set up shop in the parking lot on the corner of Fram Street and Nordic Drive when Richard and Marsha Peterson-Jones walk past. He gives them the pitch and they say sure, what the heck. So Terwilliger hops up onto a two-foot high guardrail.

He finds his balance, braces himself against the wall, then flings himself backward, inverting in midair and coming down to land on his feet. 

“Oh wow cool!” the Peterson-Jones exclaimed together.

“Well when he just approached me I was wondering, well ok what scam is this? But then that sounded plausible,” Richard said. “Then I thought he was gonna do it on his bike and I said no I’m not gonna pay for that cause he’ll get killed. But that was cool.”

Terwilliger says he’s done about 3000 back flips today.

That figure is likely somewhat exaggerated, because even if he’d been working for eight hours, that would average out to one back flip every ten seconds, with no breaks. Even so, Terwilliger has probably done more flips today than most people do in a lifetime. He says he usually rolls with a few other friends, but this afternoon he’s working alone. The goal: get enough money to buy a miniature dirt bike.

“I’m thinking one in the middle, somewhere around $500, $300,” he said.

He says he’s made about $17 today, but has more saved up.

Sometimes, if business is slow, Terwilliger will throw a flip just to keep himself entertained. (Ari Snider/KFSK)

But it’s not just about the money. Sometimes, if people don’t want to pay, Terwilliger will offer to do one for free. And if things get quiet, he’ll hop up on the railing and throw a flip just to keep himself entertained. It’s hard to make it in this business if you’re not fully committed to the craft. 

“On a trampoline I can technically do a double, I do a back flip and then land on my back,” he said. “It’s really hard though, you really gotta think about not breaking your neck.”

Hanging out with Terwilliger, you start to see Petersburg in a new light. Suddenly, it’s not just a town, but a real-life, do-it-yourself amusement park. Railings, walls, dumpsters, even the occasional parked car — they each present a unique challenge with a thrilling reward. In this case, of course, the reward is throwing a back flip off it without breaking your neck. 

Each flip lasts only an instant. (Ari Snider/KFSK)

Later on, Cedric Pehl stops by to chat with Terwilliger. Pehl is working at the PFI cannery this summer. And, as it happens, he can also do back flips, straight from the ground, without having to jump off anything. So he flips, right there in the parking lot. Terwilliger can hardly believe it.

“Dang! How does he land it?!” he exclaimed.

Terwilliger hops on his bike and starts riding off to find a grassy spot to practice this new move. He nearly forgets his roll of cash in the parking lot.