Barbara Heilman and UnbuckleMe
Eager to care for her brand new granddaughter on occasion, Barbara Heilman’s first order of business was to go shopping for a car seat. She couldn’t operate the model her daughter, Becca Davison, already owned, and she wanted something easy to use. However, when Barb and Becca returned from their shopping trip, Barb was frustrated and slightly panicked. She didn’t have the strength to unbuckle any of the car seats in the stores. When she took care of little Eve, they were not going to be able to leave the house!
Like 1/3 of all women over 55, and lots of younger folks too, Barb struggles with CMC (carpometacarpal) joint arthritis. The former occupational therapist, specializing in hand therapy, explains this affects the most mobil joint in your hand – the little spot right where your thumb rotates. Used for “absolutely everything,” this joint tends to wear down with repetitive activities or an injury. Barb has trouble opening medicine caps, cutting things with scissors, and pushing any knob or button with her thumb.
It’s been a while since I have operated or even paid much attention to a car seat, but it turns out the little red buttons you push to release the car seat strap are federally regulated and all work the same. Because they all function with 9 pounds of pressure, children don’t have the strength to push them and escape. But this means a lot of adults, like Barb, can’t push the button with their thumbs to release the strap either.
Talking in her lovely Houston home, the Wisconsin native tells me she used to accompany hand surgeons on mission trips to Nicaragua and Guatemala.The doctors performed the surgeries, and then Barb made post-operative splints for the patients out of donated thermoplastic material. Digging out the leftover sheets of this material from her garage, Barb set to work trying to design a gadget to help with her car seat problem.
In her kitchen, she demonstrates how to warm the small sheets of this material with a heat gun. Becoming pliable, the stuff will then stretch, bend, stick to itself, and stay in any position you like. Trying to come up with a device to help her unbuckle the car seat, Barb played around with lots of different designs. Chuckling, she shows me her bucket filled with trial and error attempts. “Some have hinges, one attaches to your purse,” she laughs, holding up various models. Both daughters and their husbands weighed in and had definite opinions regarding the best design.
The design she settled on, Barb explains, works on the lever principle. Smiling as she talks about her invention, she asks if I remember the Type 2 lever from physics class? Uh – not really. Gesturing with her hands, she patiently gives me an exaggerated example. “If you want to lift a house, you wedge a board underneath it, and then push on the point farthest from the house,” she describes. In her product’s case, the key is the lever, and the force of the car seat button is reduced by 50 percent. Problem solved – she can easily push the button!
Prototype in hand, Barb and Becca headed to a baby convention in Las Vegas to test the response to their device. The mother-daughter duo did get great feedback, particularly from a prominent social media influencer, The Baby Guy NYC. According to Barb, all the young parents follow him. “If Baby Guy says something is good, it is good,” she tells me. To their complete delight, Baby Guy endorsed their new product and even offered to help them spread the word about it.
Barb and Becca raced home to Houston from the convention full steam ahead. They set up a Kickstarter campaign, reached their goal of $10,000, and launched UnbuckleMe in late 2016. Becca, 32, handles the business side of things and the constant social media posts. Barb is in charge of managing orders and working to gain new clients.
As she shows me her email box, with sales notifications from Amazon rolling in, she says she had a lot to learn while designing the product. She needed to make sure the piece would not melt in a hot car during the insufferable Houston summers. Or crack because it is frozen solid in Canada or Alaska. Laughing, Barb says she put the gadget in the freezer for 3 days to test it.
I ask Barb if she ever predicted she’d be doing something like this? After responding with a quick “no,” she adds “it is really fun to create and learn new skills and help people.” Here we go again – I hear it over and over. Another example of someone who has started a completely new and unexpected project after their kids are grown. And she gets to work with her daughter – how great is that?!
Practicing with the adorable little sample bear Barb offers to the 34 stores who carry their product, she walks me through a demo of how to use the UnbuckleMe device. Once I do it a few times, I realize this simple, bright red object must be an absolute game changer for an awful lot of people. Since occupational therapists make adaptive equipment for patients who have trouble with normal activities, Barb says she really wants all therapists to know about their product – and how it will help people.
Since UnbuckleMe is up and running, it is no longer a 24/7 venture for Barb. Admiring her own abstract paintings hanging on the walls, she tells me she wants to spend more time painting this year. Maybe take some art classes. Since a recent iPhone photo class was great fun, she might try her hand at photography. She loves spending as much time as possible with her 2 granddaughters and is thrilled another one will be arriving this spring.
Barb is surprised she doesn’t mind standing on her feet and talking to people all day at product conferences. “I am exhausted when I return to my hotel room at the end of a long day,” she admits. The reason she can do it? She is having a ball! “This is something I made, and people seem to like it,” she remarks. “I talk to them about it, and they tell me how much it’s going to help them. I am even sort of thankful I have arthritis!”