Like so many other stories, ours also starts in a garage. Our four hundred square foot garage was a little different from most. We hadn’t had a car in ours in probably five years. We did, however, have a lot of quality wood working equipment.
It was 2005, unfortunately for me, the company that I was selling granite for had to close their doors. However the previous year, to help supplement the income, my wife Lynn and I had started a small wood working company called Buddy Builders. After dinner we would retreat to the garage, Lynn operating a drill press and me a table saw. We made wooden kits for kids and sold them to the local elementary schools that, at the time, had a construction curriculum.
Not long after starting Buddy Builders I was diagnosed with throat cancer. After a couple of surgeries and a regiment of chemo and radiation I became very sick and it was difficult for me to stand around the garage and operate the equipment. Lynn, along with a loyal neighbor Dan, did what they could in the evenings and on weekends to help me out.
My days and nights got mixed up and I became accustomed to working third shift hours. At my side, from almost the time I was diagnosed with cancer, was our female golden retriever Delian. It was like she knew that I was sick and she wasn’t going to leave me. Funny how animals know things like that. For over a year I struggled with my illness and then slowly started to improve. Attitude played a big part in getting better and a strong will not to quit kept me going. I also believe in fate and what happened next is a perfect example.
About the time I was diagnosed, a local kindergarten teacher with a passion for math, was presenting locally to a group of elementary teachers. She was demonstrating how to use a valuable math tool, that came from the Netherlands, called a rekenrek. The rekenrek that she had was poorly constructed and at that time were hard to come by. She asked the group of teachers if any of them might know someone who could possibly design and manufacture a similar product but better. A teacher attending, and taught at the same school with Lynn and knew of Buddy Builders, suggested maybe we could help. She gave the rekenrek to that teacher and she in turn gave it to Lynn to pass on to me. This poorly constructed item came home and Lynn asked if I could come up with a better design. I took the rekenrek and put it on the work bench where it sat for months. On two occasions I had that rekenrek in one hand and the lid to the trash can in the other! On both occasions, for whatever reason, I decided to put it back on the bench to maybe someday come up with a better product. Fate!
One blustery February day, my loyal companion Delian and I were in the garage and I started looking at that rekenrek. By days end I had come up with a prototype! After consulting with our math specialist and making a few minor changes my next stop was the patent office.
Due to the end of the construction curriculum, we fazed out Buddy Builders and MathRack was born in the garage! With the aid of family, neighbors, and friends to help with production of our products, we stayed in that garage for another five years before moving into a three thousand square foot warehouse.
I tried various materials to make MathRacks out of. After a lot of trial and errors I landed on a product called High-Density Polyethylene, HDPE for short, which is made up of recycled plastic. HDPE, is a strong, easy to work with material. I had to handcraft various equipment to aid in the production of our products. My main concern has always been the safety of the children who would be using our mathematical tools. I didn’t want any beads to become accessible to the kids for fear they could stick them in their noses or ears or the risk of swallowing them. Unlike other rekenreks, it is virtually impossible for the children to remove the beads from the rods of a MathRack. I have challenged football players to try and remove the beads from our products with no success . I’ve always been pretty confident that if some dude, six-six, two hundred and fifty pounds can’t get to the beads a six year old probably won’t be able to either! The majority of our product parts are made in the USA with the assembly of all our products done at our facility. After serving our country for four years, I can proudly say we are a veteran owned company.
The last year we were in our garage, Julie Langlas, a vocational job coach from one of the local high schools called me. She was wanting to know if I would be interested in letting some of the special needs kids from her school come over and let them help with some of the assembly production of our products to give them work experience. I was a little reluctant to do so but Julie has a very persuasive side to her, and I agreed to a trial run for a couple of hours. Having those kids come to MathRack has been one of the most personal rewarding things I have ever done. The kids are family to us! It became so important to me that I chose the location of our warehouse so I could continue to work with the same high school. Every Thursday morning, to this day, a group of kids come to the warehouse to do beading and other assembly work. We also send out work to the special needs department back at the school as well as another location. I strongly urge other companies that have production type work to give their local high schools a call to see if they, too, could also offer an opportunity to the special needs kids in their communities. It is rewarding!
I knew that our product was well made and affordable but my wife was passionate about the rekenrek’s effect on her students’ understanding of math. My next mission was to have a book to help teachers understand why, when, and how to use the MathRack. I began my search for an author and found an individual presenting about the rekenrek at a conference in Denver. I booked a flight, went to her dynamic presentation, sensed her passion, and asked her if she would be interested in writing a book for MathRack. Mastering the MathRack by Christina Tondevold is now available on our website. Again fate played a role. Christina began presenting on MathRack’s behalf at various conferences. Christina is like a daughter to us, and we are very proud of all of her accomplishments! buildmathminds.com
Conferences played another part in meeting a well known researcher, author, and dynamic speaker…Cathy Fosnot. When we approached her at a NCTM conference for her input on our version of the rekenrek her enthusiasm and kindness was overwhelming. Cathy has been a mentor and supporter of MathRack! We have had the honor to work with Cathy over the years and are fortunate to have her as a dear friend.
Since starting MathRack we have designed and patented several products and are continuing to do so. We are not a school catalog supply house. We only specialize in counting devices and will continue to do so. We are extremely proud of our products, and we feel that we have the best rekenreks in this industry. Our products are in every state and all across Canada and several other countries. Our products are kid tested tough, and you can even run across some of them with a school bus and still use them! But our mission remains the same….quality products at affordable prices with our goal being that kids will ‘Think Like Mathematicians’!