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Truckers, Kids Make Good Buddies

Professional DevelopmentTruck drivers who travel the country often have no one with whom to share anecdotes and insights. A program called Trucker Buddy International offers such drivers an eager audience. The program pairs truckers and classes, giving students a driver's-eye view of the world and prolific pen pals. Included: Examples of Trucker Buddy activities for classes.

Truck drivers might not have soft and cuddly reputations in some circles, but to thousands of schoolchildren, they are friends and confidantes who write exciting letters about cross-country travel.

A non-profit organization called Trucker Buddy International pairs truck drivers with kids in second through eighth grade and with special education students. Truckers write to students about their travels and incorporate math and geography lessons. Students get to practice their letter writing.

Tom Hawk
Trucker Buddy Tom Hawks visits some of his students.
(Photo courtesy of Tom Hawks)
Currently, 4,600 classes all over the world, mostly in the United States and Canada, and 4,400 drivers participate in the Trucker Buddy program. Over the past nine years, the program has grown so popular that about 200 teachers now are on a waiting list for Trucker Buddies.

"They [the drivers] like it because the kids think they are heroes," says Ellen Voie, executive director of Trucker Buddy International. "They look at their job a little differently; they ride a little higher in the seat. They look for things they can send to the kids."

Participation also helps change public perceptions about truck drivers, some truckers say. "I saw Trucker Buddy International as a way of helping young people overcome the stereotype of a pill-pushing, tattooed, cursing, foul-smelling trucker," Ray Nations, a Trucker Buddy since 1996, tells Education World.

Teachers' responses have been overwhelmingly positive as well. "Teachers we have talked to love it," Voie says. "It gives the kids someone real to write to, and they think of them [the drivers] as friends."


According to Voie, a professional truck driver was seeking a community service project, but he was rarely in his own community. The driver developed a way for truckers to get involved with any school -- at home or on the road.

Voie recruits drivers mostly through the media and trucking shows and is always seeking truckers to meet the demand. All drivers who apply to the program undergo background checks; Trucker Buddy International also issues guidelines to truckers for writing to classes and meeting with students.

Lessons from the Road

Here are some Trucker Buddy class projects:

Trucker Tom Hawks asked students having trouble with math to help him calculate how many gallons of fuel he will need to drive a certain distance if he averages 6 miles per gallon.

Teacher Lee Floyd has seen increased interest and improvement in student writing through the Trucker Buddy program. "It is a great incentive for the students to finish their work and get to write to their Trucker Buddies. I still have kids who are not excited about writing, but they do enjoy writing to their Trucker Buddies."

Second-grade teacher Nancy Warzecha says, "The Caramicos [the class's Trucker Buddies] had the children measure items on their truck, such as the tires. On our fieldtrip, the bus was weighed with us on it and empty. We then calculated the difference. The problems were definitely for second graders. We talked about the number of miles they'd traveled and compared distances."

Trucker Ray Nations says, "I try to teach [kids] about the interstate system, how the mile markers and exits are arranged. I try to teach them about the importance of trucks ('If you have it, a truck brought it. And if you don't have it, a truck is on its way with it!') I tell them about how to drive alongside big trucks safely, hoping they will go home and tell their moms and dads."

Teachers also receive instructions, which include reading all correspondence before passing it on to students and not allowing children to use their last names or addresses in their letters to the drivers. Trucker Buddy is most popular with third- and fourth-grade teachers, Voie adds.

Students receive a lot of correspondence through e-mail. Many drivers travel with laptop computers, and often they are more technologically savvy than the teachers with whom they are matched, says Voie. Several drivers have developed Web sites for their classes.


Some truckers correspond and visit with multiple classes across the country, putting in hours of their own time.

Tom Hawks, a driver with Overnite Transportation Company, based in Memphis, Tennessee, has been a Trucker Buddy for eight years and is a buddy to five classes; four in Monticello, Mississippi, and one in Palatine, Illinois. He receives about 75 letters a month from students.

One weekend a month during the school year, Hawks writes to each of the students in his classes. He also sends each student holiday cards and often mails classes boxes of treats, such as pencils or stickers. Overnite also allows Hawks to visit all his classes at least once a year, with his truck.

Hawks became a Trucker Buddy after reading about the organization in a trucking industry magazine. "I was traveling all over the country and seeing so much of our country's history, wondering about how I could incorporate that into a 'show and tell' program to some group of people, and I stumbled upon the magazine ad," Hawks says. "I knew when I saw the ad that this would be a perfect way to do it."

He likes knowing that he is helping students see how their lessons apply to real life. "I think most drivers look at it as I do. Kids have so much curiosity about what the world looks like and how it works. Teachers do a fine job teaching them how to read about it, but as a driver who travels around in it daily, we can put some reality into what they read," Hawks says. "I am often asked about what a particular state looks like. So, if I don't happen to go there, I ask another driver I know to pick up some postcards for me when he or she goes there, and I mail them to the kids. In this way, they see [the state] the way I do through my windshield."


Other drivers told Education World about how connecting with classes fuels their enthusiasm for their jobs. Becky Thunder is a Trucker Buddy to several classes, including Lee Floyd's fourth-grade class at Grady Brown Elementary School in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Thunder carries a digital camera with her so she can e-mail her classes photos she takes on her journeys.

"The biggest reward is communicating with the kids themselves," says Thunder. "Their refreshing views and comments about whatever they are involved in themselves and the many questions they have about what we drivers do out there on the road makes each trip a lot more interesting for us because we are always looking for things to tell the kids about. This keeps each trip fresh for us and makes us more aware of the privilege of getting paid to travel and see so many interesting things."

Nations, the driver who is a buddy to nine classes, said he starts the year by telling the students they will be "traveling" with him as he journeys across the country. "As I travel, I try to remember certain things I've seen, heard, touched, or smelled along the way so I can include those in my e-mails," Nations tells Education World. "Once I was going through farmlands in Illinois, and the smell of freshly plowed dirt permeated my cab. I mentioned this to the kids. Well, the city kids had never smelled dirt before, so the teacher took them outside and made them scoop up some and smell it!"

Nations also tries to visit his classes once a year with his truck and give kids a tour of the vehicle, including his tiny "bedroom" behind the cab. "When students sit in the driver's seat and peer out over the steering wheel, for many, you can see a look of, 'wow!' come over their faces," Nations says. "The school visit really puts the final touches upon a pen-pal-type relationship and helps the students see that I am a real person doing a real job."


Several teachers tell Education World that Trucker Buddy activities work easily into their curricula and pique students' interest in writing and geography. Teachers say the amount of time spent on Trucker Buddy activities varied each week.

"The Trucker Buddy program was a part of my curriculum intertwined with math, language, reading, and social studies," says Brenda K. Himsel, who retired this year from teaching third grade at North Grove Elementary School in Greenwood, Indiana.

Students tracked their buddy's route on a large map using yarn, calculated the driver's mileage between destinations, talked about the products on the truck, and wrote letters. Throughout the year, the children sent birthday and holiday cards, presents, and a class photo, adds Himsel. "The idea of learning and communicating with a driver made every opportunity fun."

Second-grade teacher Nancy Warzecha of Windsor Elementary School in Elyria, Ohio, says her class has been paired with a husband-and-wife driving team, Roni and Paul Caramico, for the past five years. Besides providing a steady flow of correspondence, the Caramicos usually bring their truck for a visit every year.

"The project has correlated with my curriculum in many ways," Warzecha says. "The children have upgraded their writing skills through correspondence with the Caramicos. The program also has opened up an interest in geography that Roni and Paul supported through a magnetic U.S. map. Roni and Paul even managed to get good math questions integrated into their talks. They've shown the children a practical use for the skills they are learning. The Caramicos also have opened up a potential vocation and taught the children about their lives as truckers."

Warzecha says she is impressed with the Caramicos' dedication. "I couldn't have asked for a better match," she says. "From the beginning, the Caramicos were very involved with my classes. I have tons of postcards from all over the United States. The children, from the various classes, were able to bond with Roni and Paul through their visits to the school. Each visit brought gifts for each child and the class and a huge cake. The children enjoyed learning about the truck, including the safety lessons. This past year's class went on a fieldtrip to a truck stop. Lunch was served, and a highway patrol officer talked with the children. The entire trip, including our bus, was financed by Roni and Paul."

Lee Floyd says she and her class's Trucker Buddy, Becky Thunder, have become friends over the years. Floyd's students love receiving postcards and photographs from Thunder, which the kids keep in a scrapbook. Children look forward to writing her letters. "Writing letters is in our fourth-grade curriculum," Floyd tells Education World. "Students need lots of practice with letter writing as well as making their letters interesting and descriptive. They need to be able to elaborate and use lots of details and descriptive words, so I encourage those skills in their letter writing to their Trucker Buddy."

Youngsters also get a first-person view of a profession. "It gives the students and their families a unique opportunity to learn about an occupation with which they may not be familiar," says Floyd. "It's a learning and teaching opportunity for all of us involved."


Children are very loyal to their Trucker Buddies. Hawks, a buddy to eight classes, recalls that in 1998, his students learned he was under consideration for America's Road Team, 12 drivers who represent the trucking industry for 18 months. About 1,200 drivers were competing for spots on the team. Students started a writing campaign for Hawks, and he was named one of 24 finalists. Then the youngsters sent a photo album of pictures and support letters to the judges to help seal his selection to the team.

"When my company presented me with a new truck with my name on it and chromed it up to look good, I took it the kids and now they see it as a symbol of the success we did together," Hawks says.