Convoy Crusaders

by Jim Bray

PARIS, Ont. –Talk about Long Combination Vehicles (LCVs) -or long vehicles combining their efforts, anyway.

While these particular vehicles weren’t exactly the type of LCV you see on some highways, they were special trains of trucks that travelled three provinces recently, and they were so long they required police escorts -and so important that truckers gave up their precious weekends to ensure it came to pass.

The trucks were participating in this year’s World’s Largest Truck Convoy, which brought truckers and their vehicles together with athletes, law enforcement personnel and others over late summer and early autumn weekends in an annual effort to raise money and awareness for the Special Olympics charity. It’s an event that began in Florida before spreading to Canada, and the organizers of this year’s Canadian legs report that 2009’s convoys were a big success despite some major challenges.

“It was our fifth anniversary in Ontario, and it came hand-in-hand with the 40th anniversary for Special Olympics Canada,” organizer Tammy Blackwell says. “So it was a very special year for us.”

Blackwell announced that the Ontario truckers -as well as one from Langley, B.C. who drove across the country for the event -ended up writing a cheque to the Special Olympics in the amount of $51,000 after their Sept. 19 convoy.

The 2009 convoy didn’t always seem as if it would come off, though.

“With a not very promising economy,” Blackwell says, “we really thought about whether or not we would even go forward. Was it wise? Would we get the turnout? And then we started hearing from our drivers and decided to do it anyway. I’m very glad we did.”

Ontario’s convoy begins and ends at the Paris fairgrounds and goes as far as the Putnam scales, where there’s a large turnaround area the trucks can use. Once back in Paris, the participants take part in a lunch and awards session that gives them a chance to rub elbows with the athletes, the law enforcement officers involved, parents and the public. Blackwell says that, as a special treat this year, Lynn Snider of Drumbo Transport addressed the crowd.

“She’s not only part of a trucking family, but she also has three Special Olympic athlete children,” Blackwell says. “So she could talk from the trucking side as well as the side of the parent of Special Olympics athletes.”

Snider was accompanied on-stage by four athletes and, according to Blackwell, “You could’ve heard a pin drop. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard that many truck drivers quiet in one spot.”

Snider’s family was well represented in the trucking part of the convoy, too. Her husband Dwight was one of the top three fundraisers, pledging $3,100 -only beaten out by Luis Alves, of Linamar Transport ($4,730, which earned him the honour of driving the lead truck) and Brian Hilton of MacKinnon Transport ($4,244). A total of 56 trucks were on-hand for the day, which ended with a baseball game between the top 12 pledgers and Stratford’s Special Olympics baseball team.

“Try to visualize 12 out-of-shape truck drivers who haven’t touched any sporting equipment for years playing a bunch of athletes who practice all the time,” Blackwell says. “It was a hoot!”

The $51,000 given to the Special Olympics surpassed last year’s total by $1,000 and, while it wasn’t a record, the organizers weren’t discouraged.

“We knew it was going to be a tough year so we dug in and got a few more prizes and worked hard on sponsorship,” Blackwell says, “because we knew we couldn’t just depend on one element to bring in all the funding. Overall it came out good for us.”

It’s good for the drivers, too, apparently. Blackwell says some of them are already asking for their 2010 pledge sheet. “They want them before Christmas so they can hit up everybody at the Christmas dinner table,” she says.

In Manitoba, Special Olympics director of marketing Terry Hopkinson reports its third annual convoy also came off well despite economic kerfuffles.

“We had the largest number of trucks ever,” he says proudly, tallying 48 in all, up six from a year ago. The Sept. 12 event ended up raising close to $15,000 for the Special Olympics, Hopkinson reports, praising the great buy-in from the industry, “particularly at the driver level.”

“We had some companies that stepped forward and put a lot of trucks into it as well, such as Bison and TransX, who were huge players,” Hopkinson says, noting that many independents and company drivers turned out for the convoy as well. The Manitoba convoy headed out from a new venue this year: the town of Oak Bluff, which sits on the perimeter highway just southwest of Winnipeg. “They were really good to work with,” Hopkinson says of the townspeople. “They let us use their community centre, which had showers and washrooms and the like, so a lot of the truckers stayed overnight and were ready to go on Saturday morning.”

The procession followed a 52-km perimeter route around Winnipeg and, besides the truckers and police escorts, they also had “a bunch of athletes come out and they all got to ride in trucks -and they were absolutely thrilled about it, pulling on the horns and that. They thought that was pretty terrific,” Hopkinson says.

Trophies were awarded to TransX, for having the most trucks in the event, and TransX drivers Cliff and Brenda Sumner raised the most money, “about $3,500” according to Hopkinson, and got to be the lead truck. Henry Picton, with Darcol International, was the number two driver, while Norm Lussier of CWS Logistics came in third.

The Athlete’s Choice Truck, awarded to the truck the athletes thought was “the prettiest,” was the Darcol International/Henry Picton entry.

Saskatchewan truckers held their third annual fundraiser on Saturday, Sept. 26, with 60 truckers -the most participants since the event began there, beating handily the previous high of 42 -heading out in a two mile long train along Hwy. 11 from Saskatoon to Regina.

This year’s event supporting the province’s 1,250 Special Olympics athletes grossed $25,000, according to Special Olympics Saskatchewan director of operations, Roger Dumont. “Which is tremendous in terms of sponsorships and registrations from all of the truckers involved,” he adds, “Given the economic times and conditions that we have, this year certainly surpasses the expectations that we had.”

After the convoy, figure skater Justin Duong spoke to the crowd at a celebration barbecue, recounting his experiences competing with Special Olympics for eight years. Duong has won 18 gold, 11 silver and six bronze medals at four national competitions. “Special Olympics helps him train, compete and meet new people and travel across the country,” Dumont says, “And the truckers’ support goes a long way to help him and other athletes get to competitions.”

For the third year in a row, Ed Wright, who drives for Kindersley Transport, raised the most pledges ($3,100) and drove the lead truck. Second was Al Ackerman with Slinkemo Enterprises and third was Brian Harrison from Maximum Training.

Dumont credits Paul Perry, safety and compliance officer for Jay’s Group of Companies, as being the lead organizer of the event. “It is his enthusiasm and long hours on the phone making calls that lines up all these trucks,” Dumont says, “But the effort was worth it.”

The World’s Largest Truck Convoy has raised well over $50,000 for Special Olympics Saskatchewan in its three years.

Money contributed from each convoy stays in its home province, helping to provide a much-needed lift to Special Olympians there.

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