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Concierge role turns personal in rushed lives

Andrea Maida got the panicked phone call early one morning.

Her client was working in Belize, but the camera he needed for his job was still in the back seat of his car, parked at Miami International Airport.

Could she fly down with it to Belize City, then catch a small plane to the beach community he was developing?

Maida grabbed her passport.

A personal concierge never says no to a client.

Maida, a former financial analyst who started Fifth Avenue Concierge in Palm Beach Gardens 10 years ago, said, "You find a way to give them what they want."

Even if that means a white-knuckle flight to a remote Central American building site, a feat that impressed her client.

"It was a comfort knowing that anything I needed to get done, Andrea could do at a moment's notice," said Cliff Goodrich, developer of Dreamscapes of Belize.

Money may not buy happiness, but it can buy time -- and sometimes even salvation.

Once, Maida delivered a $1,500 Louis Vuitton purse to a man who had forgotten to buy his wife a birthday gift.

She also pet-sits, manages snowbirds' winter homes and runs almost any errand -- but draws the line at feeding live rats to a client's pet snake.

"I found a snake handler for that job," said Maida, whose voice retains the Caribbean cadence of her native St. Lucia. She was spending a recent morning stocking the refrigerator at the vacation home of clients due the next day from Montreal.

Her company is one of dozens of Palm Beach County microbusinesses willing to take on the to-do lists of time-starved people.

Starting at about $30 an hour, busy people can outsource chores to a doppelganger who will get the car's oil changed and pick up the dry cleaning. Research the best air conditioner or cellphone plan. Provide a week of home-cooked meals. Solve the puzzle of the new IKEA shelving unit. Organize closets and tuck patients in bed after minor surgery.

Parents are even hiring coaches to help their children pass auditions at the county's performing arts schools.

After her husband's death left her with a mountain of financial paperwork to decipher, Francine Quitko of Boynton Beach, Fla., started Quitko & Associates to help other women in the same situation, as well as newly single men flummoxed by household tasks.

"I've had male clients who were married 30 years and didn't know how to run a washing machine," said Quitko, who also shops and runs errands for clients.

Having a personal assistant only when you need one "allows middle- and upper-middle-class people to live like the wealthy," she said.

Since the recession thinned their ranks, personal concierges have evolved from party planners to periodic aides-de-camp for those willing to exchange time for money.

Seven years ago in Miami, Danielle Norcross was arranging celebrity-studded parties on private yachts. Today, as the owner of Concierge Couture in Jupiter, Fla., she arranges closets and home offices, and helps her clients remain fashionable.

"People juggle these big roles in their lives, and there isn't time to get it all in," Norcross said. "We take care of the little things so they can do the big things."

To protect clients, many concierge services are licensed, bonded and insured.

But Craigslist is packed with a mostly unregulated crowd offering shopping, driving and cooking services. Students can even outsource their homework.

For $50, 20-year-old aspiring novelist Gisselle Diaz of Delray Beach, Fla. -- who said she started college at age 14 -- will write a "guaranteed A or B" college paper.

"The way I see it," Diaz said, "if you need a service, I'm providing that service."