TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Randy Schwartzenburg took over as executive director of Trucker Buddy International a couple of years ago, he knew there was work to be done to revive a once-vibrant program that had all but disappeared from view.
In fact, after one year on the job, he put his own spin on the magnitude of the job at hand.
“Someone asked how to you eat an elephant,” he wrote, noting that the weight of an African elephant was equal to about 62,000 McDonald’s Quarter Pounders.
Then he answered his own question: “One bite at a time. When you have a large list of things on your ‘to do list’ then you have to tackle them one at a time or you’ll be overwhelmed,” he wrote.
Making sure not to be overwhelmed, Schwartzenburg has been rebuilding the program using the analogy of a three-legged stool one leg at a time.
“The driver has always been an important leg to the program. (Each month, the organization honors a Trucker Buddy of the Month.) If you don’t have the drivers signing up for the program, mentoring the classes, getting involved, then you don’t have anything,” he told The Trucker.
The other two legs are the teachers and promotion and Schwartzenburg has set out to make sure those are firmly attached to the stool.
“Coming into the program, I began to see that we probably had not done a good job of communicating to the teachers and recognizing the teacher side of it,” he said. “So last July, I went to the National Education Association show and it was like shooing fish in a barrel. I had a little 10-foot-by 10-foot booth and teachers would walk up and see the truck up there (the Trucker Buddy logo) with the kids and they would say ‘ah, that’s cool, what’s the program?’”
Schwartzenburg would explain the concept of the program.
“They’d say ‘I’ll sign up.’ I think I signed up 500 teachers. It was awesome,” he said.
One teacher who visited the booth became emotional.
“I started talking to her and tears started flowing out of her eyes,” he recalled. ”I said ‘did I say something to insult you?’ and she said, ‘no Randy, my dad was a driver for 30 years and if I’d only known this program was happening he and I could have done it together and it would have helped us stay closer together.”
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Recognizing the importance of the teachers involved in the program, Trucker Buddy has begun a Teacher of the Month program and will honor the monthly winners at the Great West Truck Show in June.
Trucker Buddies of the Month are honored at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville held in March.
Then there’s the promotional aspect.
“For a while (pre-Schwartzenburg), we were not having the press releases go out about what was happening with the program,” he said. “I would walk up to people who have known me a long time and they’d say ‘what are you doing Randy?’ and I’d tell them I was running Trucker Buddy International and they’d say ‘what’s that? I’ve heard of it, I think.’ So I would explain it to them and they’d say ‘that’s the greatest thing ever, that’s fantastic.’ So a lot of it has to do with promoting it and talking about it and getting people involved, getting the radio stations involved getting different publications to get the word out.”
The concept of the program is simple.
Drivers are matched with a classroom in any grade K-8. Some even have entire schools.
The drivers communicate with the students about the trucking industry through e-mails or letters to the teacher. Most drivers make appointments with the teacher to drop by the school and allow students to see the truck and ask questions.
Today, there are about 2,300 drivers working with 2,500 classrooms involving 60,000 students, Schwartzenburg said.
Participating drivers are subjected to a criminal background check and must communicate with the class at least once a month.
The enhancement promotion has allowed the program to fill all but 10-12 of the classrooms seeking a driver partner, but if a driver wants to participate and there’s no class available, Trucker Buddy will work to find one Schwartzenburg said, adding the teachers sign up virtually every day.
The work to revive the Trucker Buddy program one bite at a time may be intense and perhaps even a bit difficult at times, but the rewards are great, Schwartzenburg said.
“I get a call or a letter or an e-mail at least once a week,” he said. “For example, we encourage the drivers to take their trucks to the school because they can teach about safety and their lifestyle and engines and 40,000 pounds of chicken parts. I had a driver call me and say, ‘Randy, I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate what you all do because I just came from heaven. I just went to my class visit. My dispatcher was mad at me, the company where I was unloading was mad at me even though they made me wait an extra hour, then the shipping company I’m going to next is mad at me because I’m an hour late because of the other company. Everybody’s yelling and screaming at me. But you know what, when I went to my class, I have 25 kids who think I’m the greatest hero in the whole world. This makes my day. When I’m on the road and get a packet of letters from these students saying how great I am, it makes we want to keep driving.”
The compliments come from teachers, too.
One involved a husband-wife driving team.
“They’ve had a relationship with this teacher and her class,” Schwartzenburg related. ”There was a deaf child in her class and the husband and wife team developed a relationship with the deaf child’s family. So they became friends, such good friends that they put the child in their will because they want to make sure that the child is taken care of. That’s why I do this.”
“Then there was the trucker (who was named a Trucker Buddy of the Month) who when he drives up, the whole school comes out. They mentioned to him that they were losing their playground equipment. He’s a Swift driver and he went to Swift and asked if Swift would donate money to help them build their playground equipment so Swift gave them a donation. It’s very rewarding and probably the most fun thing I’ve done in a long time.” 8
Lyndon Finney of The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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