To a child, large trucks can seem intimidating and truck drivers might be viewed as tough and unfriendly.
But a program called Trucker Buddy International helps squash misconceptions by connecting school-aged children with drivers.
Trucker Buddy, which started in 1992, pairs truck drivers with teachers and their students as pen pals. The program has matched more than 2,000 drivers with approximately 60,000 students around the world.
Being away from family and friends for days at a time can be very isolating for drivers. Trucker Buddy gives them an opportunity to cultivate strong relationships with younger generations, which can be especially beneficial to on-the-road drivers during the holiday season.
Donner receives an award and is seen with a student in Green’s class. (Angela Green)
Meanwhile, students benefit by learning about truck safety, geography and career opportunities.
“Drivers are helping the teachers and the teachers are helping these drivers,” Trucker Buddy Executive Director Alan Welborn said.
The program has changed Duane Donner’s life immensely. A member of Trucker Buddy for the past 20 years, Donner, a driver for Walmart who lives in Litchfield Park, Ariz., is paired with teacher Angela Green and her eight students from Douglas Middle School in Box Elder, S.D. All of Green’s students face learning disabilities or cognitive challenges. Donner provides the class with hours of conversation and learning.
“My kids talk about seeing Walmart trucks out in the community, and we have had conversations about what they think is on that truck and where do you think they are going,” Green said. “They look up to him so much.”
Getting to know one another is a yearlong adventure. “It’s a process, but once that connection is made, it is incredible,” Donner said.
Students from Green’s class with Donner’s rig during one of his visits. (Angela Green)
Green said Donner and his wife have been more than pen pals to her students. “They send gift cards to the kids from Walmart and we get them right before Christmas,” Green said.
When the students return from Christmas break, Green sits down and helps her class write thank you cards to Donner and his wife.
Donner feels the value of the relationship with the students is worth more than the clothes and gift cards that he sends. “It’s been an incredible opportunity for me, I truly feel that those kids have given me by far, more than I have given them,” Donner said.
Stories like these make Welborn very proud of the work that drivers involved with Trucker Buddy are doing. “The drivers are supplying Christmas to some of these needy students, and the students are supplying the moral support with the cards and letters to the drivers,” Welborn said.
While there is no set curriculum the truckers follow in the Trucker Buddy program, many drivers focus on truck safety and the importance of trucks to everyone’s daily life.
Donner has been with Green’s class for two years. Drivers can be with a teacher for just one year, or for several depending on whether the driver and teacher want to continue the relationship and advance with the class.
Green waves from Donner’s cab. (Angela Green)
Trucker Buddy hopes to expand the reach of the program to more drivers and students with a goal of sparking interest in trucking for younger generations. “We want to make sure young kids understand the opportunities in trucking and continue to be excited about trucks and truck drivers,” said Drew Mitrisin, a Trucker Buddy board member.
For Mitrisin, manager of industry affairs at American Trucking Associations and the son of a UPS driver and teacher, stepping into a role with Trucker Buddy was a comfortable fit. “Trucker Buddy is like what I grew up with,” he said. “My mom’s little first-graders get to talk with my dad and interact with him in his brown uniform. They come away with an appreciation for what truck drivers do every day.”
Donner has become a hero to Green’s class. Children flock to his rig each spring when he pulls into the school parking lot for a visit.
Thanks to regular communication via text message, e-mail or Skype, Donner has become a close friend and beacon of light in the students’ lives. Green has seen her students blossom and open up in ways that may not have been possible if it weren’t for Donner. The photos and postcards Donner sends as he passes through cities and towns are giving students the chance to see the world, something many will never have.
“Many of these students have never left the area [South Dakota], and this is where they are going to be,” Green said.
Donner insists he’s the one whose eyes have been opened.
“What they have taught me and the things that they do and how they do them, especially when they are dealt a hand that doesn’t seem fair, I have gotten just as much if not more out of the program as these students.”
Interested teachers or drivers can find more information about the Trucker Buddy program at truckerbuddy.org.