Brad Brown, 12, has a hobby he loves. Now, what was once child's play has led to a year-long appointment to a panel of advisers for a national toy company.
K'NEX Industries Inc. announced Wednesday it had selected the Kenai student as one of 10 members of the "K'NEXpert Panel" for 2001 out of hundreds of applicants.
His face and creations are pictured on the company's official World Wide Web site, and the company gives him trial products, discounts and other perks.
"It has been a really big deal for him," said JoLynn Brown, his proud mother.
Brad lives with her, an older brother and his father, Stephen, pastor of the New Life Assembly of God Church in Kenai. He is a seventh-grader at Kenai Middle School.
Brad has been building increasingly elaborate models out of the bright, plastic connectors for six years.
"I got my first K'NEX set on my seventh birthday. It has grown ever since," he said.
He estimated that he now has about 10,000 pieces.
"Basically, you can build anything you want to. As long as you have enough pieces, there are no limits," he said.
The only disadvantages to the sets are having to take old models apart to build new ones and the amount of space they take up for someone with such an ambitious collection, he said, gesturing toward a six-foot in diameter model of the Roman Colosseum in the family living room.
His mother said the versatile construction toys have encouraged his natural creativity, taught him concepts of architecture and engineering and served as the basis for several school projects.
Brad subscribes to the company's e-mail newsletter and frequently checks its Web site for tips and plans. Through those he learned about a company contest last year. It was a building challenge seeking original and creative uses of K'NEX, and he entered three of his models.
For a long time the Browns heard nothing. Then one day in October a big parcel for Brad arrived at the post office. It was a radio-controlled robot set and an announcement that he had won the contest.
"I told my friends that I won the contest," he said. "They think it's pretty cool."
He was doubly amazed when he received a letter from the company, dated Nov. 29, inviting him to serve on the panel.
"You've shown us that you have the awesome creative ability it takes to be a member of our panel," it read in part, "and we'd like to recognize that talent and give other K'NEX fans a chance to see what a great builder you are as well."
K'NEX is a privately held company based in Pennsylvania. Inventor Joel Glickman, now the company's chief executive officer, got the idea for the construction toy while playing with straws at a wedding and founded K'NEX in 1992. Since then, K'NEX has made a license agreement with Hasbro and reintroduced the classic building toy, Lincoln Logs.
The Browns accepted the company's invitation and, in February, Brad received a gift kit including a K'NEXpert hat and T-shirt. He will receive quarterly prototype kits that are not yet on the market, plus a gift from the company for his birthday later this month.
The first test kit he got was for the "Spirit of America Land Speed Racer." The car construction kit came with an evaluation for him to complete about the instructions, the package information, the proposed price and the model itself.
K'NEX invites the panelists to represent the company and demonstrate their model building at promotional events at malls and toy stores. But the Browns don't expect much like that in Alaska, although Brad may do some events in Anchorage.
"That would be fun," he said.
Brad's elite position also allows him to order individual replacement parts without having to purchase entire kits. And he gets them half price this year.
"I just put in an order for 500 more parts," he said.
His mother said the entire experience has been a thrill for the family.
"We've been really impressed with how they have handled it and treated him," she said.
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