After her neighbor’s house was struck by lightning, Julia Luetje, an eleven-year old from Leawood, Kansas developed a fear of thunderstorms.
“I’m afraid of storms,” said Luetje. “I don’t like hearing them or seeing the lightning.”
Flashing lights, loud booms and a downpour of rain — it’s a pretty reasonable thing for a kid to be scared about. But when the elementary school Luejte attended held an inventor’s fair, she decided to face her fears.
Luetje created an invention she named “The Storm Sleeper.”
“The storm sleeper is a pillow fort for your head with a speaker and reading light so you don’t hear the sights or sound (of the) storm,” Luetje said.
Luetje’s first prototype had three pillows glued together in the shape of a horseshoe, draped with a blue cloth. Inside, speakers were velcroed on to play soothing music.
“For school last year, my mom just bought cheap pillows because she thought it was just another school project and I used hot glue and didn’t sew,” said Luetje. “It took like an hour to make.”
Luetje didn’t win her school invention fair. But she knew her design had potential and she wasn’t ready to give up on it.
“Last spring, I saw on (The Ellen DeGeneres Show) this contest called the Frito-Lay Dreamvention. So I entered because I already had an invention I just made,” Luetje said.
A few months later, Luetje’s parents received a phone call from Frito-Lay.
“At first my parents thought it was a scam,” said Luetje. “But then once they figured out it wasn’t, they were really excited.”
It was an invitation for Luetje and her family to attend a special ceremony in Austin, Texas.
“It was really cool because I walked in these doors and there were these cameras filming me, and they told me I was a finalist and I couldn’t believe it,” Luetje said. “Because I didn’t win at my school invention fair but I was in the top five out of 13,000 (competitors.)”
A little over a month after the ceremony, Luetje received news that she'd been selected as the grand prize winner and would be awarded $250,000.
Luetje’s mom, Susan Bernstein, says she couldn’t be more proud of her daughter’s journey.
“The lessons that she has learned have been invaluable. To know that this huge thing had happened to her is just so surreal,” said Bernstein. “It’s amazing to see your child achieve their dreams.”
Inventing things runs in the family. Luetje’s grandfather is Bob Bernstein, founder of the Bernstein-Rein advertising agency and Beauty Brands, was an inventor of the Happy Meal for McDonalds. (His conversation with Central Standard about that is here.)
Luetje is now in the process of patenting her design. She ran into one small problem about her age, however.
“My parents helped get the patent because I’m too young,” said Luetje. “So their names are on it.”
The Kansas Legislature presented Luetje with a certificate of recognition for her accomplishment. But Luetje’s siblings are tough critics.
“I think they were like kind of jealous. They would always say ‘Just tape this to this and enter and I could win,’” said Luetje.
Despite the fancy awards and envy of her siblings, what matters most to Luetje about her inventions is fairly simple.
“Just knowing that (my inventions) could help other people,” said Luetje.
That’s her next big step: getting her design to market so The Storm Sleeper can help other people who are afraid of storms.
This story originally aired as part of Central Standard’s conversation on astraphobia. You can find that conversation here.
Coy Dugger is an assistant producer for KCUR’s Central Standard. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Due to an editor's error, an earlier version of this story said it was based on a conversation with Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann. An audio version of this story aired on Central Standard, but Julia Luetje spoke to reporter Coy Dugger.