Traverse City Record-Eagle

Life

November 28, 2010

Northern People: Invention offers a step up

Highly portable device folds up to 3 inches wide

TRAVERSE CITY — What started out as Glenn Schrock's retirement project may be his children's retirement nest egg.

Schrock, 73, is creator of Handi-Steps, lightweight, sturdy aluminum steps with handrails that also are easy to store. The folding steps collapse wheelchair-style to just three inches wide.

A church pastor and retired hospital industry professional, Schrock also is an amateur inventor. So when it got hard for his elderly mother-in-law to get in and out of the family minivan, he turned his mechanical mind to creating the step up that she needed.

He made the first wooden prototype in 2003. But when the steps began to attract attention, he and wife Shirley decided to go into business with their two children to give others the help they need.

After pooling their resources to raise startup costs, the family consulted with health-care professionals and fine-tuned the design. Then they had a relative in Alabama produce 50 of the steps, which the family assembled in Schrock's heated garage.

Now the Handi-Steps line is manufactured in Clare and includes three one- and two-step models. Accessories range from crutch stops to hooks for hanging the steps out of the way.

Son Wendall and his wife, Loveda, manage the marketing side of the business while daughter Rhonda Gingerich and her husband, Luke, handle website maintenance at www.handi-steps.com.

Glenn and Shirley take care of inventory and shipping, with Glenn also overseeing quality control.

"Mom's the sales lady," Wendall said. "She tells people they need these things."

So far the family has sold more than 200 of the steps, about 40 to Munson Medical Center's Emergency Department. Besides allowing users to step up into vehicles like vans, buses, boats and campers, the steps are useful in the medical field anywhere a leg up is needed — from alongside beds and transport carts, to beside exam and treatment tables. Each model also is designed to be made into exercise steps for occupational and physical therapy.

While the steps' folding mechanism is patented, it's the sturdy handrails on both sides that make them winners, Wendall Schrock said.

"There are step stools and stepladders. The selling point is the handles and the security of holding on to things," he said.

Robert Krist, of Omena, bought the steps in early November to give his 89-year-old mother, Helen, a way to maintain her balance while climbing into his van.

"I have a Chevrolet Astro, so it's a big step up," said Krist, who often drives his mom to doctor appointments, church services and visits at his home. "I've used a collapsible plastic stool, but it's difficult for her to get up there. With the Schrocks' steps, you can slide them right up to the car, they're nice easy steps, she has something to hold onto. It's a safety issue and her son is soon to be 20 years younger than his mom, so it makes it easier for me. I don't have to physically move her so much."

Now Krist is considering storing the steps at Northport Highlands, where his mother lives, so other residents of the retirement community can use them.

Stories like Krist's are what make the service-oriented business most rewarding, Wendall said. But the family also hopes to grow the business while maintaining other jobs and their involvement at Traverse Bay Mennonite Church.

"We don't know where it's going to take us," he said, adding that the company continues to make refinements to the steps as it gets new ideas. "If we could get these Medicaid-approved that would be huge for us, but that's an expensive process."

Meanwhile, the steps are being marketed mostly by word-of-mouth and online. Wendall also attends medical equipment shows in hopes of attracting hospital buyers.

"We tried to open our ears to professionals to see what they wanted," he said.

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