By JEFF PICKELL
Fayette resident Ken Derflinger has always enjoyed being involved in youth related activities. Unfortunately, his job as a commercial truck driver puts him on the road for upwards of 25 days a month. This doesn’t leave much time to volunteer in local schools or parks programs.
However, about six months ago, Ken caught a radio show segment featuring Gary King, the founder of the Georgia-based non-profit group Trucker Buddies.
The organization pairs truck drivers with classrooms, and the match-ups are a hit. Since 1992, Trucker Buddies has linked thousands of truck drivers with second through eighth grade classes all over the country.
Listening to King speak of his experiences, Ken thought the program would suit him well, and his employers at Wauseon’s Wood Trucking encouraged his decision to volunteer. In April, he was assigned a third grade class at a public elementary school in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Truckers enrolled in the program maintain a pen pal relationship with their students. Ken e-mails his classroom two or three times a week. Students e-mail him about once a month.
What does he write about? Anything and everything related to his life on the road. He sends the students updates on his journeys, digital photos of landmarks he encounters, and news about the cargo he’s carrying.
Many might think that truckers, who are often depicted as seedy and unsavory by popular culture, have little to add to the classroom experience. This misconception arises when people fail to see the big picture, Ken says. A view of the big picture is precisely what trucker buddies strive to offer—in more ways than one.
Few young students are well-traveled enough to understand how vast the countryside is—to know about the Tennessee mountains, the rolling hillsides of the Texas panhandle, the deep valleys in Missouri. They’ve never seen the Chicago skyline or the Great Lakes. The teacher of Ken’s class wasn’t aware that a buckeye is a nut and not an animal.
Through his stories and photographs, Ken helps awaken students to the sheer diversity of experience the country has to offer. He also tries to enlighten the students about the manufacturing industry.
At one point, his students had a hard time believing that he was carrying an entire truck full of Hershey’s candy bars—they couldn’t believe that that much candy could exist. So, as proof, he took a photo of his shipping invoice and sent it to them.
“They’re learning from a job that most people take for granted,” he said. “A lot of students don’t know that there’s a big process involved in getting their next box of macaroni and cheese from the production plant to the dinner table.”
“If you ask some children where milk comes from, they’ll say ‘the grocery store.”
Trucker Buddies also work with teachers to devise educational exercises related to the program. For instance, students might calculate how many regular-sized cars it would take to equal the weight of a semi-truck, or add up the length of his daily journeys to find the total distance of a shipping route.
“I especially like the geography connection,” said Waldron elementary school teacher H. Hukill.
Last year, Morenci resident Doug Clark served as a Trucker Buddy for her class of second graders. While Ken is more apt to use the computer to communicate, Doug liked to rely on good old snail mail—sending post cards from various destinations to the students.
When the cards arrived, students attached them to a map of the United States on the classroom wall, tracking their pen pal’s progress. Doug also sent the class various souvenirs from his travels, such as a chunk of salt from the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
There is no one way to go about being a good Trucker Buddy, says Ken. He often logs onto the www.truckerbuddy.org to find new ways to contribute to learning. However, the program isn’t for everybody.
Some truckers sign up for the program without realizing just what it entails—eventually falling out of contact with the students as they grow tired of the responsibility. Ken says the teacher of his classroom went through two Trucker Buddies before finding one that stuck—him.
Two weeks ago, Ken’s dedication to the classroom paid off—he finally got to meet his students. His dispatcher in South Dakota assigned him a load of paper rolls headed to Ontario, Calif., and the route took him just six miles north of Albuquerque.
In Ken’s words, the kids went “crazy” when he showed up with enough pizza in tow for everybody. Of course, the teacher knew he was dropping by, but they planned his afternoon-long visit as a surprise.
Over the course of the next few hours, he answered students’ questions and conducted a tour of his rig. He even accompanied the children to recess, where he was treated like a school-wide celebrity.
“They all had to introduce me to their friends and brothers and sisters,” he said. “It was really something.”- Oct. 4, 2006