- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

Every time Laurel, Md., trucker Bruce Brandon hauls his 53-foot trailer cross-country, he takes with him a classroom full of wide-eyed children.

They goggle at life-size models of snarling dinosaurs fighting in Arizona's petrified forest, visit Abe Lincoln in his log cabin in Illinois and watch quicksilver athletes in the Salt Lake City Olympics.

And they do it all without ever actually setting foot inside Mr. Brandon's truck.

Instead, the 25 children, who attend Public School No. 1 in Staten Island, N.Y., traverse these far-off places through postcards Mr. Brandon sends them during trips lugging frozen food, meat and orange juice from one side of the country to the other.

The children, in turn, write letters to him every month, taking the edge off long road trips "where all I can do is talk to myself," says Mr. Brandon, a tall man with a ready laugh.

The unique partnership between Mr. Brandon, 42, and the Staten Island second-graders is part of Trucker Buddy International, a program that pairs classrooms around the United States with truckers who write to them from the road about the places seen along the way.

The Trucker Buddy program so far has involved a half-million children, says Executive Director Ellen Voie.

The Waupaca, Wis.-based program was started in 1992 by Gary King, a trucker who met a teacher and began writing to her class from the road. Mr. King has since retired, but his idea has flourished.

The program has expanded to 4,600 elementary classrooms around the country, and 4,400 truckers correspond regularly with students, Miss Voie says. Some truckers even write to classrooms in South Africa and Japan.

The truckers who participate are an assorted lot, Miss Voie says. They are young and old, single and married, men and women. They are so much in demand that there is a waiting list of 170 classrooms that want their own trucker buddies.

"It is a win-win situation," Miss Voie says. "Children think of the truck driver as a hero. As for the drivers, they spend a lot of time on the roads, and this is a chance to be involved with the community."

For the children, their buddies are fun, above all.

"Children love trucks. There is nothing they like more than the sound of a fire horn," Mr. Brandon says, recalling his days as a volunteer firefighter in Laurel before he took up trucking full time five years ago. He says he loves driving so much that on his vacation, he hopped into his Chevy Blazer and drove to Seattle to see his sister.

Although he is single and without any children of his own, he enjoys writing to his class of 7-year-olds.

"I have gotten a lot of pleasure from sharing my time on the road," says Mr. Brandon, who creates a theme with every letter he sends to his students. Once he bought a map of the United States and mapped his route on it. Another time, he sent the youngsters a batch of funny postcards.

Sometimes he will go out of his way to get pictures of something he knows the children will enjoy seeing, such as the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

He collects all the letters he gets from the children and even has put some on his refrigerator.

"How tall are you?" one child asks in a letter with a picture of a truck. "What do you do on your off days?" another asks. "Do you talk on a CB radio?" a third wants to know.

The truckers have some amusing stories to tell. Ray Nations, a trucker who lives in Williamsburg, corresponds with students from Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington. He remembers when he was traveling through Texas, he saw a cotton field and decided to pick a few cotton bolls for each class.

A few weeks later, while visiting one of the classes, he asked the students what they thought of the cotton bolls. He recalls: "One of the kids, who obviously will be a lawyer someday, replied, 'Ray, did you pick that on private land?'"

Trucker Buddy usually pairs a trucker and an elementary school teacher whose class corresponds with the truck driver.

Phyllis Youngberg's trucker buddy, Steve Johnson from Connecticut, has been corresponding with her students at Glenallan Elementary in Silver Spring for the past five years.

"It's a wonderful way to encourage writing, to teach geography with meaning and to broaden my students' worlds," she says.

Children also learn some math through problems the truckers pose, such as asking the youngsters to calculate the number of miles they can go with a certain amount of gas in their tanks.

Mrs. Youngberg, who has been a teacher for 26 years, says the program has truly motivated her children.

In their letters, she says, the children ask all sorts of questions, including personal ones. "They ask him about his family, about his little daughter. They ask questions like, 'How many wheels does your truck have?'"

The letters also improve the children's writing. "The letters they send Mr. Johnson are not contrived. They know they will get correspondence back, so they are eager to write," she says.

Although trucker buddies sometimes visit the schools with which they are affiliated, Mr. Brandon says he hasn't had a chance to do so because he does not usually work in New York. Still, he is planning to make a trip there in his spare time to see the children. He feels as if he already knows some of them, he says with a smile.

Some children, he says, are quick to pick up on the ideas he floats in his letters. Often, they come up with something funny. For instance, Mr. Brandon's letter on the difficulty of parking a truck in a post office lot brought a reply from one student that showed a drawing of a truck parked next to a post office.

Another student, in his drawing, put Mr. Brandon in a mail truck.

"It's fun making kids laugh," he says.

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