By BENJAMIN PRESTON
DEC. 4, 2014
It’s not uncommon for adults to criticize school-age children over their lack of geographical knowledge.
A nonprofit group helping to solve that problem is Trucker Buddy International, which in 1992 began linking long-haul truck drivers, who tend to have a fairly thorough knowledge of the nation’s roads and cities, with classrooms around the country.
Essentially, it’s a pen-pal program, with teachers selecting how the drivers will communicate with their classes, said Randy Schwartzenburg, the organization’s executive director. Some choose email, some prefer letters and others like truckers to send postcards from the places they visit. A few truckers set up blogs.
“Teachers love the program because each postcard or email is an instant geography, math, history, social studies and reading lesson,” Mr. Schwartzenburg said in an email, adding that about 2,100 drivers, 2,300 teachers and nearly 60,000 students participate in the program in all of the contiguous 48 states, as well as in Canada and parts of Europe.
The program challenges drivers to learn more about the places they go and transforms run-of-the-mill things like calculating driving time and distance into lessons for elementary school children. There’s also the thrill of bringing to life the landscape that slides by their windshields day in and day out.
“This program reaches way beyond a pen and paper,” said Fred Sweetwood, who has been driving trucks for nearly 40 years and has been involved with Trucker Buddy for 11. “It paints the Rockies, the bitter cold of North Dakota and the devastation of Oklahoma City and Katrina. It brings America to the classroom through the eyes of a truck driver.”
Truckers like Mr. Sweetwood and K.?C. Brau, who has been driving for 28 years, can form long relationships with the teachers whose classes they exchange letters with.
“To date, I estimate approximately 350 students have passed though classes I have shared with,” Mr. Brau said. “I have seen several teachers retire and a couple more move into other positions in the schools.”
Caroline Walradt, a second-grade teacher at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, a private school in Princeton, N.J., said she had been working with Mr. Brau for about nine years.
“My students gain in many ways,” she said. “First, they learn a lot about the value that truck drivers provide to us by moving goods across the country. Second, they feel they have a friend in K.?C., who writes letters and sends postcards every week without fail.”
Ms. Walradt says her students are enthusiastic about receiving letters from him.
“We have a map of the United States in the room, and we mark each state as he visits it,” she said. In addition to his letters, Mr. Brau sends pictures of the places he visits so students can get a sense of the variety of places around the country.
Caroline Walradt, a second-grade teacher at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Princeton, N.J., keeps a special map displayed in her classroom so students can track their trucker buddy. Credit Caroline Walradt
“Not only are they learning about geography, but a reason knowing geography is important,” Ms. Walradt said.
Linda Carson, a fifth-grade teacher at Marais des Cygnes Valley Elementary, in Melvern, Kan., said she connected with Mr. Sweetwood, who drives trucks for the Walmart distribution center nearby, about 11 years ago. She has been teaching there for 38 years.
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“Trucker Buddy Fred shares stories, pictures and highlights of his trucking trips as well as personal vacations,” she said. “With this wealth of information, we connect with other academic subjects such as social studies, science, math and reading.”
There are challenges, too, Ms. Walradt said. But that was mostly when she first got into the program and couldn’t find a trucker who would send letters once a week.
“It took me a few tries before I found K.?C.,” she said.
With regular correspondence, a sort of community can develop among the truckers, the teachers and the students.
“Fred will attend as many events as possible to show the students he cares about them,” Ms. Carson said. “Fred and his lovely wife, Sandy, are also very generous in donating to our annual school carnival. Their donation helps supplement our reading and math programs.”
Mr. Sweetwood said that many students regularly wrote letters and forged friendships with drivers. He remembers one letter he received from a student this year.
“One little girl started the year telling me her dad was dying with brain cancer,” he said. “I mean, wow, I’m just a truck driver, but sometimes they just need someone to listen.”