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Pen Pals On Wheels

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Passing through Tennessee earlier this year, truck driver Donnie Schaff dropped a postcard of a guitar-playing pig dressed in cowboy garb into a mailbox. Underneath the picture, the caption read, "Nashville Cowboy.'' A few days later, a class of 4th graders at Al Tahoe Elementary School in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., was squealing with delight.

As the students' official "Trucker Buddy,'' Schaff regularly sends the class cards and letters from stops along his route. In fact, the 4th graders' correspondence with "Donnie'' has become an integral part of their school lives.

When their teacher, Sheila Cassin, saw an ad in a school newsletter for the Trucker Buddy program, a national initiative that matches truck drivers with elementary school classes, she jumped at the opportunity. Her students were low-achievers; getting them to write a single sentence, she says, was an accomplishment. Several months after linking up with Schaff, they were cranking out four to five paragraphs. Cassin credits the change to Trucker Buddy.

The program is the brainchild of Gary King, who, until recently, was a truck driver based in Elkhorn, Wis. During a particularly lonely period in his life several years ago, he contacted the principal of a local elementary school and asked if he could "adopt'' a class and exchange letters with it from the road. He figured the relationship would give the students a chance to hone their writing skills and learn a little U.S. geography.

Trucker friends of King's coveted the piles of letters he was soon receiving and asked him to pair them up with classrooms, too. Gradually, the initiative began to spread. King even started telling people he met at truck stops about the pen-pal program, and many expressed interest in getting schools in their own communities involved.

Today, with financial support from such sources as Kenworth Truck Co., Chevron Lubricants, and several states, more than 2,500 truck drivers communicate with elementary classrooms across the United States. As many as 300 additional truckers are on a waiting list. King has given up his trucking job to manage the program full time. This past summer, for the first time, he paired off U.S. drivers with classrooms in a handful of other countries, including Canada, Mexico, Guam, and Hungary.

Any professional trucker can sign up. Although King does not conduct background checks on prospective participants, he does require everyone to verify that he or she works for a legitimate trucking company. This requirement was put in place after a couple of prison inmates tried to sign up claiming to be truckers. Nothing like that has happened again, King says.

Teachers and drivers are charged nothing to participate, although King does ask for donations. "We're trying to provide a service,'' says King, who now lives in Arizona City, Ariz. "We teach kids about other parts of the world; they need to learn about their own country.''

Teachers praise the program, saying it has not only motivated students to put pen to paper but also improved their writing skills. One girl in Cassin's class, for example, could only write simple sentences, such as "Dog ran,'' at the beginning of the school year. But that's all changed. One day last spring, the student wrote, "I like [Trucker Buddy] because of all the postcards and letters. They were from different places, and it was fun finding them on the map. Donnie sent us neat stuff. We got pens and pictures. It's fun. He writes to us and we answer. I've never done this before. I like it because we learn about different states.''

Cassin says the initiative has given her English program a much-needed lift. "I just couldn't get them interested,'' she says. "Now, it's taken off like wildfire.''

Although King manages the matchmaking side of the program, teachers are in the driver's seat in their classrooms. All the correspondence between the truckers and the students goes through them. Many incorporate a structured time within their English curriculum for students to write letters to their pen pals. For some teachers, this is as often as once a week. Others, particularly teachers of the primary grades, work it in more sporadically.

Of course, reading and writing are only part of the payoff; students also get a healthy dose of geography.

After her class was assigned a buddy, Cassin stopped by the local AAA office and picked up a map of the United States. She laminated it and hung it on her classroom wall. She also got a container of colored pushpins. She stuck one pin in Buffalo, N.Y., Schaff's hometown. And now, every time her kids get a postcard or letter, she marks where it was sent from on the map. This ritual, along with the cards, usually triggers a conversation about the particular city and state. Her map is littered with pins. There is one poked through Chicago; Burlington, N.C.; Detroit; Richmond, Va.; and many other cities.

Veteran trucker Dennis "Shifty'' Dockham, from Bozeman, Mont., likes to mail his pen pals in Huntington Beach, Calif., things that in some way represent the towns he stops in. He's sent rocks, postcards, magnets, even menus from restaurants. "It helps them learn where states and cities are,'' he says.

Schaff even asks Cassin's 4th graders to solve some real-life math problems, such as how many miles he has traveled on a given trip or how much gas he will need. He often slips in a historical fact or two, as well. On the Nashville postcard, he writes: "Andrew Jackson lived here. Does anyone know what president he was? Nashville is also the capital of Tennessee.''

The cards, facts, and knickknacks all grab the children's attention, but there is another reason the program is so popular with the youngsters. "Kids love trucks,'' explains 1st grade teacher Diane Fraser of Sutton Elementary School in Houston. They crave intimate details about the huge vehicles and pose delving questions in their letters: "Where do you sleep?'' "What do you call your truck?'' "How much gas does it hold?'' The nomadic nature of the trucker lifestyle also captures their imaginations. Fraser's students were incredulous, she says, when they learned their buddy had to nurse the flu from a motel room.

The kids want to know everything about their buddies' personal lives--their families, homes, pets. "They feel very close to [Schaff],'' Cassin says. They send Valentine's cards, St. Patrick's Day cards, pictures, even homemade cookies in the shape of Trixie, his dog.

King believes the exchanges introduce kids to "a type of character'' they might not otherwise get the chance to meet. Truckers, he says, are "everyday people,'' not "big bully types,'' as some people think. Moreover, King says, students are learning about the trucking industry, which King believes is the lifeblood of the United States. "Without trucks, America stops,'' he says. "Everything you have comes directly or indirectly by trucks.''

Although Cassin's kids love the program, there is one shortcoming they are quick to point out. Schaff's trucking contract doesn't allow him to carry goods west of the Rocky Mountains, so he won't be paying them a visit anytime soon. "If I could change anything about this program,'' student Amber Ramin says, "I would like to meet Donnie.''

Other student participants, however, have been more fortunate. Dockham describes how one of the classes he wrote to treated him "like a star'' when he finally met them last year. "I signed all their hats,'' he says proudly.

Even though Schaff is miles away and will probably never meet his 4th grade buddies in South Lake Tahoe, his presence is a positive force in their lives, Cassin says. She recalls a card he recently sent the class. "I'm going to be the best driver I can be,'' he wrote. "I hope you're all doing your best.''
--Jennifer Chauhan

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