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Well Done, Buddy!

by Duff McCutcheon
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When a young lad in Harpersville, N.Y. heard talk around the playground that maybe Santa Claus didn't exist after all, he sought solace from an unusual source. He turned to his Trucker Buddy, Pauline Nelson of Windsor, Ont.

"He was very upset about that, but I tried to cheer him up a little bit," she says. Another of her young pen pals complained about an evil stepmother, while another wrote about her life in a foster home. "Sometimes they tell me personal things and you just try to make them feel good about their situations. I'm like a confidant."

Trucker Buddy International is a non-profit outfit that matches drivers with elementary school classrooms in Canada and the U.S., as well as Mexico, France, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. Founded in 1993, the organization now boasts 4,000 drivers communicating with more than 100,000 grade 2-8 students around the world. The Trucker Buddies send pictures, postcards, notes, letters, e-mails, or photos to the children in their assigned class each week so that the students can track the driver's travel on maps in the classroom. In return, all the students write individual letters to their Trucker Buddy at least once a month.

Pauline and her husband Gary were recognized at the Mid-America Trucking Show recently as one of a group of 12 Trucker Buddies of the Month for 2004 (October), along with two other Canadians: Calgary trucker Fred Steudle (June), and Anthony Slauenwhite of Bridgewater, N.S. (September). The trio is among 82 Canadians participating in the Trucker Buddy program.


"The truckers write about what they see on the road and the places they've been, as well as safety messages. They'll tell them about the no-go zone areas around the truck, plus the standard 'don't do drugs, study hard, stay in school, and mind your parents,'" says Trucker Buddy's Char Pingle.

The Nelsons - an owner-operator combo hauling freight between Windsor and Texas for Transport Robert - have been Trucker Buddies since 2003 and are currently corresponding with 75 grade 4 students in Harpersville, N.Y. "Part of their curriculum involves writing a formal letter, so the teacher asked me to do that. They're one-page notes and I answer their questions and ask them questions in return. It also helps with math, because we tell them where we have to be, how many miles it is, and when we have to get there and they figure it out. And we teach them about geography because we explain where we go and the differences between those places and where they live."

Calgary's Fred Steudle was Canada's first Trucker Buddy, and actually had his own program corresponding with a Calgary classroom when he heard about Trucker Buddy International. The Heyl Truck Lines driver contacted the organization in 1996 and decided to roll his own project into the broader Trucker Buddy program.

"The kids really provide a different perspective on driving because they're unlikely to ever get a chance to visit all the places we talk about. They think it's amazing that we get to go to all these places, while we drivers just take it for granted."

If you're a young student corresponding with Steudle, you can expect some homework assignments, like identifying different cities on a map, as well as filling out logbooks on everything they do at school and chores at home. However, the work pays off at the end of the year. Steudle awards points for all completed assignments, and during classroom visits he holds an auction where the kids can use their points to bid on trinkets - t-shirts, hats, keychains - that he's picked up on his travels.

Anthony Slauenwhite, known to his class as Trucker Buddy Tony, first got involved with the program in September 2003, and has been corresponding with the same teacher, Bethany Milburn (grade 2) of Kennebunk, Maine, ever since. This year he has a class of 18. Actually, Anthony shares the pleasure of being a Trucker Buddy with his wife Lucy (known as Big Mamma Lucy), a non-trucker with a full-time job at home in Bridgewater.

"I send along a handful of post cards every week, and at least one letter," he says. "But Lucy e-mails the class everyday with news that I send home on the phone. She really does a terrific job of keeping us all in touch. And she's a real pro at the Dollar Store."

Lucy gathers up lots of little trinkets to send down to the kids in a big gift bag, along with coloring books, videos, and brochures that he collects on his travels. He says Howells Travel Center in Kittery, Maine, the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association, and his company, GTS Transportation of Dartmouth, N.S., all help by donating material to the cause.

The biggest thrill of all came in April 2004 when the couple drove down to visit the class for the first time. Anthony had asked for a class that was on his main travel corridor, I-95, and was fortunate to get the class in Kennebunk. "Before the visit, I was really nervous about meeting them. I'm not really a people person," he says. "But seeing the smiles on their faces as we came through the door made all the nervousness fade away."

After the visit, the couple met with parents and local media, before they were treated to a spaghetti dinner and put up for the night at a local family's home.

The Nelsons have also dropped by the Harpersville school to meet their young penpals. "The kids went through the truck and the school had a big assembly for us before we left. It's amazing to think that we're perfect strangers to these kids but there's such a connection through our correspondence," says Pauline.

The couple first heard about Trucker Buddies on one of the truck shows they listen to on the radio. "We've got nine grandkids and most of them are very interested in trucking so I figured there's got to be lots of other kids who are interested. They see the big trucks going by and wonder where they're going. When I was a kid I never got a chance to travel and now I know what a beautiful continent we live in and I try to share that."

If you have ever had an inkling to share all the good things about trucking, and make a real difference in someone's life at the same time, Trucker Buddy is worth considering. Your editor Jim Park was a Trucker Buddy for two years prior to 'retiring' from active service. He had a class in Redmond, Wa., and really enjoyed the interaction with the youngsters.

"It really was quite a thrill sharing my travels and my observations from the road with the gang in Redmond," he says. "What seemed pretty mundane to me allowed them a window into a world many of them may never see. Try describing the endless miles of Canadian prairie to a kid who lives in the Pacific Northwest."

But when the kids sent back pictures they had drawn of what Park described in his letters, it literally brought tears to his eyes.

"Nothing could have prepared me for the impact of those pictures. I had simply described a place I had driven through, and they dug into their imaginations to create those pictures," he says. "I knew I had touched them, and then I realized the awesome privilege and responsibility that comes with being a friend to those little folk."

Trucker Buddy International is on the lookout for more Canadian Trucker Buddies. There are presently about 400 classes on the waiting list, so if you think you might like to become a Trucker Buddy, check out their website at www.truckerbuddy.org, email info@truckerbuddy.org, or call (800) MY-BUDDY.