Amy Thyng and her son, Sam, 7, spent part of their time at home recently acting cheesy.
They drew big cardboard pictures of Old El Paso products and cheese with a cartoon quote bubble that read "so cheesy" and took pictures of themselves.
It was part of a contest from Old El Paso to introduce its new cheese varieties. The grand prize winner would be given a trip to Yellowstone National Park.
They won and are really excited about taking the trip, though they are not sure when that will happen. Old El Paso is being generous with the timeline to accommodate for the coronavirus pandemic, Thyng says.
Sam is looking forward to finding cool rocks because he’s really into geology, and he wants to see some bears because he’s seen them in pictures of a Yellowstone trip Thyng and her husband, Matthew, took before he was born.
Finding fun contests and being creative with them has become a hobby for the Thyngs.
Typically when they come across a contest like this one, Thyng heads to the grocery store, picks up some products from the company and shoots goofy photos with the product. This contest came out just as the stay-at-home order was put in place, and she didn’t want to take an extra trip to the grocery store.
So, they improvised with cardboard and sidewalk chalk she had bought for Sam to create cardboard houses, shields, swords and other magical backyard things.
It helps that she has a degree in art.
Thyng didn’t really like the look of it and was not going to submit their entry, but Sam told her, "Would you rather try and fail or just throw it in the trash?" "He was the one who said, ’You’ve got to try again,’" she says.
Sam, who just finished second grade, won $30,000 for his school, Mills Elementary School, and $15,000 for himself from Uncle Ben’s as a first grader.
He’s also won $5,000 in a Petco contest that he donated to Austin Pug Rescue. It was a video and photo about how Sam is an only child and Benson, his pug, is his best buddy.
Recently, he also won a contest from Rack Room Shoes to be one of the models for back-to-school publicity. They were going to head to North Carolina for the photo shoot this summer, but instead the prize is wearing the shoes around town and taking pictures of Sam in creative ways.
They’ve done photo scavenger hunts around town and won a free trip to a Four Seasons resort. She’s entered contests from "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and was able to participate in the 12 Days of Giveaways. In that, she won a washer and dryer and a year’s supply of laundry detergent. She also won a trip to Disneyland for a fun photo contest through the show.
Three years ago they won a year’s supply of jelly beans from JellyBelly, which had them going around their neighborhood passing out jellybeans when the shipment arrived each month.
A lot of times, she comes in second place in a contest, which usually translates to year’s supply of products. She always makes sure it’s something she or her friends can use before entering a contest.
Her friends, who call her Contest Amy, sometimes jokingly ask, "What have you got for me now?"
The weirdest thing she’s won was a single roll of toilet paper. "But a month ago, that would have been like gold," she says.
A lot of weird T-shirts and random things come her way.
Some of the best things have been a trip to Mexico for her mom for Mother’s Day and a trip that her husband won for the two of them to go to Las Vegas to compete for a bigger prize through "Wheel of Fortune." They didn’t win the big prize, but they got the trip and a smaller prize, which allowed her to stay at home with Sam.
When Sam was a baby, she won a trip to Disneyland from Disney with a photo contest in which she dressed up as a princess and kissed a frog, who turned into prince Sam.
Thyng began her contest hunting around the time when extreme couponing was becoming popular. "I was in-between jobs and somehow stumbled into the fun of online contests," she says.
She follows companies on Instagram and Twitter and finds contests that way. She won’t enter a contest for anything she doesn’t want, like an RV, and while there are a lot of contests for smoking products, she won’t enter those. She also isn’t a fan of contests where you have to get votes, because there’s a lot of cheating in those, she says.
She’s met a whole community of people like herself. They’re called sweepers, as in people who enter sweepstakes. She’s even vacationed with a fellow sweeper and her family.
Sometimes Sam will say things like, "Am I going to be famous again?" referring to that time he won the Uncle Ben’s contest. "Don’t get too big a head," she’ll tell him. "You’re not famous."
Sam loves the creativity of it, she says. "He’s a ham. He’s up for goofing around in front of the camera."
His personality has made staying at home hard for him. He misses seeing his friends, she says, "and having his audience."
She has tried to make this time fun. Yes, they’ve entered a lot of contests, but they’ve also created their own "Alamo Drafthouse" in a bedroom, complete with tickets that you have to redeem when you enter.
They’ve designed their own board games. They bought a snow cone machine and a sprinkler to play with. They’ve done school on a blanket in the front yard. They’ve tried to just keep each day interesting.
The one thing she hasn’t won that is like her white whale is a new car. Her husband’s car is 11 years old, and she’d like to win one for him.
She has to be careful, though. He works for Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, which owns a lot of things, which disqualifies them from many contests.
But not America’s Cheesiest Family. She’ll take that win proudly.