Mother of invention

Published February 3, 2007

SPRING HILL - It didn't take long for a curious toddler to figure out how to unclasp the seat belt buckle that held her car seat in place.

And it didn't take long for that toddler's mother to figure out a way to keep that from ever happening again.

With the help of Clearwater manufacturer American Plastic, Patricia Mandarino of Spring Hill has created Angel Guard, a small squarish plastic widget that covers belt latches and makes them impossible to unbuckle.

She also started her own company, Future 1st, to sell her product. The device went on sale Thursday, just in time for "Child Passenger Safety Week," which runs from Feb. 11-17.

Mandarino said she was surprised when she talked to other parents. Their kids had unbuckled themselves in the car as well.

It happened to Mandarino as she drove through Spring Hill one April afternoon in her gray Cadillac sport utility vehicle. She heard 3-year-old daughter Marilyn call out, "Mommy!" from the back seat.

Mandarino, 40, turned around to find her little girl had released the seat belt that secured her car seat and toppled sideways during a turn.

"I thought, oh my God, and pulled over as soon as I could," Mandarino said. "I mean, this is my only kid. I was rattled."

Mandarino marched into Target, Wal-Mart, and any other store she could think of looking for something to cover the seat belt. She knew what she was looking for: It had to cover the latch, and it should be simple enough to slip on and off - but not easy enough for children to remove.

At the stores, Mandarino found nothing. At home, she searched online. Nothing.

Then she called her husband, Frank, who works at a Cadillac dealership in Tampa. "Honey, I've just invented something!" she said.

With the help of a patent attorney, the couple searched for products similar to her idea. When that turned up dry, Mandarino visited Bob Belzer, president of American Plastic in Clearwater.

She walked into his office with a pair of plastic cups taped together at the ends. The two of them came up with several prototypes - which she tested on cars at the Cadillac dealership - before honing in on a design.

In the meantime, Mandarino hired a public relations firm in New York and filmed a commercial, which began airing locally Thursday.

"She was so enthusiastic," Belzer said. "Usually, we go through security agreements and all that stuff. But she was so bubbly and honest, that we went straight to figuring out how we were going to make it work."

Ingenuity is nothing new to Mandarino. As a kid, she was always figuring out a way to make things work.

Her sister, Linda Bretagna, 44, who also lives in Spring Hill, recalled their Bronx childhood. Once, when Mandarino was about 5, their parents put empty kitchen appliance boxes out for them to play in.

"We were running through it like a tunnel," Bretagna said. "It kept coming apart and Tricia dragged our dad into the garage and made him tie it together with some kind of rope. I remember thinking, 'Why didn't I think of that?' "

Angel Guard sells for $19.95, and comes in three colors - tan, black and gray. So far, Mandarino has invested $60,000 in her venture and American Plastic has made 15,000 Angel Guards. As of Friday, Mandarino said, two orders had been placed.

In the coming months, the housewife turned inventor plans to crank up her marketing campaign, attending trade shows in Orlando and Las Vegas.

And though Mandarino said she tried to get the stamp of approval from national consumer protection regulators, no one paid much attention. But she's quick to note that Angel Guard is made with a special high-tech plastic manufactured by Bayer.

And it's an important device. Mandarino pointed to statistics from the highway traffic administration: Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 4 to 14 in the U.S. While 98 percent of infants and 93 percent of children ages 1 to 3 are regularly restrained in child safety seats, not enough children ages 4 through 7 are restrained properly in booster seats.

"Our children are our future," Mandarino said. "They're our little angels."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or 352848-1432.

Fast Facts:

Angel Guard

Invented by Spring Hill mother Patricia Mandarino after her toddler unbuckled the seat belt that strapped in her car seat. The device slips over belt buckles and prevents children from unbuckling themselves.

Angel Guard sells for $19.95 and comes in three colors - tan, black and gray. It is only available by phone or over the Internet.

For more information, visit. www.theangelguard.com. Call (352) 200-5814 for questions, or 1-888-30-CHILD (1-888-302-4453) to order.