ALL SMILES: Trucker buddy Fred James is able to visit his class at the Stonemoor Day Care Centre in Port Perry, Ont. as often as once a week when he travels home to see his wife and day care supervisor, Karen. James is one of more than 80 Canadian drivers involved in the program. Photo by Adam Ledlow
ROLE MODEL: Trucker Buddy Gerry Dressler proudly shows off a shirt designed for him by students from Buffalo Public School #82
Photo by Donna Haivland
PORT PERRY, Ont. Rachel Woodman, 6, didn’t want to go to school today. Something special was happening at her day care that she just couldn’t miss.
But unfortunately today was also one of the days when she was scheduled to attend senior kindergarten and despite all her begging and pleading Mom made her go. Still, it didn’t really matter. Rachel knew she would most likely get to see her Trucker Buddy Fred again next week anyway.
So it goes for four- and five-year-olds at Stonemoor Day Care Centre in Port Perry, Ont. who anxiously await postcards, pictures and the occasional visit from Fred James, a company driver and driver mentor with XTL Transport.
But tots and truckers together?
The kids at Stonemoor are among thousands of youngsters worldwide involved in the Trucker Buddy program, organized by Wisconsin-based Trucker Buddy International.
Incorporated in 1993, Trucker Buddy got its start back in 1992 when a truck driver named Gary King contacted a grade school in Williams Bay, Wisc., asking the principal for permission to set up a pen pal program with one of their classes.
One fourth grade teacher quickly agreed, and soon King was sending postcards describing his adventures on the road. Students responded with their own letters and questions.
The teacher immediately recognized the potential for the program as a learning tool for math, geography and writing and King was quick to spread the word to his peers at truck stops across the continent.
As a result, a word-of-mouth snowballing effect produced over 1,000 teacher-trucker matches in the company’s first year.
Today there are more than 4,000 teacher-trucker matches, in schools as far-flung as Alaska, the U.K. and France.
“I think that our program is so well supported by the industry because we show a more human side of professional drivers,” said Ellen Voie, executive director of Trucker Buddy International.
Enjoys the reactions
In Canada, there are 20 participating schools, 86 participating drivers, including James. James became involved after reading about the program in various publications and eventually signing up at a trade show last year along with his wife Karen, a supervisor at Stonemoor.
“I thought it was a neat idea. I thought I’d enjoy seeing the reactions of the children,” said the father of two grown daughters. “I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in.”
Since the daycare is so close to his home in Janetville, James is able to visit his class much more often than most Trucker Buddies.
Bill Gould, a driver with Highland Transport in Moncton, N.B., has only been able to see his class in New York once since he first started with the program in 2003.
His class goes to the Explorer Charter School in Brooklyn, nestled in what Gould refers to as “the proverbial asphalt jungle,” where parks consist of cement grass and chain link trees.
The student body is made up of mostly visible minorities and many come from low-income or broken homes. According to Gould, it’s children like these who really need a program like Trucker Buddy.
“Sure, some of them may go on to university and get a higher education, but a lot of them won’t. They’ll drop out early,” he said.
“Whenever I write to the class, I put in a line saying, ‘Study hard, do well, do good work, look out for one another, be kind to each other and do what your teacher tells you.’ I put these little messages in from time to time just to let them know that there are things they should be paying attention to in their lives.”
He delighted Ms. Teri Kinney’s Grade 1 class during his visit last June with a parcel containing “little odds and ends,” including candy, rubber stamps, pencils, notebooks and games.
The children in Kinney’s are genuinely in need of these gifts and truly do appreciate them – something Gould knows thanks to the “Thank you” letters he gets back from them.
“Most kids these days seem to expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter and kept entertained. But these kids in Brooklyn appreciate every little thing right down to a pencil,” he said.
It’s a sad reality that continues to baffle Gould as much as his ongoing generosity continues to baffle the students.
“One little fella said to his teacher one day, ‘How can people that have never met us love us so much?'” Gould said.
“They just can’t believe that a stranger would pay so much attention to them and give them so much feedback.”
So great is the incredulity of many children involved in the program that students at Buffalo Public School #82 in New York thought their Trucker Buddy simply did not exist.
That is until Gerry Dressler walked through their door.
“They didn’t believe I existed because of their home life. About 80 per cent of them don’t have fathers in their life,” said Dressler, a driver for Highland Transportation ‘s head office in Markham, Ont. “They thought I was just something the teacher had made up to help teach them.”
A former church youth group leader, Dressler first started writing to Mary Anne Van Dyke’s class last September and was immediately aware of the need and apparent isolation of the children from the outside world.
Many, he says, haven’t ever been more than a few blocks away from home.
“We took a look at the maps that Highland had provided for them. I showed them where I had gone, that there was a world outside of their little corner of the city,” he said.
“These kids in particular are very poor, in some cases, forgotten children. It shows that there’s something outside that they can work towards.”
Since Dressler has been on the Trucker Buddy team, he has set up a Trucker Buddy bulletin board at Highland for all his co-workers to see.
“Recruiting is the big thing,” he said.
“I’m just trying to get the message out that this is a lot of fun and this is something that both the kids and drivers can benefit from.”
But on both sides of the border, there is still the ever-lingering stereotype of truckers as knuckle-dragging highway cowboys who should be kept as far away from children as possible.
James hopes that this program will continue to clear the trucking industry’s good name and educate the generations of tomorrow to see truckers as they truly are: brothers, sons and fathers.
“A lot of these kids never come in contact with a truck driver. Hopefully I’m making a good impression so when they’re out there later in life they can say, ‘I had a Trucker Buddy and you know what? There is nothing wrong with a truck driver,'” he said.