When John Tibbs climbs into his rolling office and fires up the Volvo VNL760, he turns heads just about anywhere he goes. That’s thanks to the fully wrapped cab that features graphics of puzzle pieces and a handshake, arranged to form a heart. Amid the colorful shapes, slogans proclaim: “Celebrate neurodiversity” and “Help raise autism awareness.” The truck’s cab is crowned with the phrase, “There is no cure for being yourself.”
Tibbs enjoys driving the truck — and not just because he topped many of his co-workers at Thomas E. Keller Trucking of Defiance, Ohio, for the honor. He also enjoys driving the rig because of the chance it gives him to share his unique perspective with people on the subject of autism.
“I have two children that are plagued by the disorder,” he said. “One is 12; her name is Abigail. The other is getting ready to turn 19, and his name is Nicholas. He has it pretty severe.”
This firsthand experience makes Tibbs the ideal ambassador for the company’s awareness truck. Wherever he goes, he’s either fielding questions or sharing stories with people who, like himself, have been personally impacted by the developmental disorder.
“I get people coming up all the time wanting to take pictures of it. With all the information on the truck and all the colors, it kind of sticks out,” he said.
“On this one particular occasion I had a gentleman that drives tractor-trailers who had a family member with him that deals with this disease. He asked me to take a picture of him and his daughter next to the truck,” he shared. “They were very excited to know what we were trying to accomplish, and I’ve had many people comment on the fact that they have a family member who is affected by this disorder and how much they appreciate the fact that we’re trying to raise money for families that are dealing with the same issues.”
Such field reports are sweet music to the ears of Jonathan Wolfrum, president of Keller Trucking, a 250-tractor outfit that’s a subsidiary of Keller Logistics Group. Designating a company “charity truck” wasn’t his idea, but it quickly became a popular labor of love for the company’s 275 drivers.
“I want to give credit to a company called Transland in Missouri. We’re in the ‘best practice’ group with them, called the TPP — the Transportation Profitability Program,” Wolfrum said.
“You present a best idea at each one of our meetings. This is actually one of their ideas, to have a charity truck where every mile the truck drives, we donate. In this case, it’s three cents per mile to the cause,” he said. “They had a couple trucks that they’ve done that with in the past. We really thought it was a great idea.”
Keller had already developed a culture of philanthropy, having launched a veterans’ foundation that has garnered the support of the local community to the tune of $300,000 over six years. Given that track record, a charity truck felt like a good fit — provided they could come up with the right cause. Wanting the widest buy-in possible, company leadership turned to the workforce for input.
“We surveyed our employees, first thing,” Wolfrum said. “We put the idea out there and said, ‘We’re going to do this charity truck idea. We’ve not preselected any charity or foundation. Let us know what affects you.’ We got a ton of results in, and I’ll say an overwhelming majority mentioned autism affecting their lives in one way or another.
“So, it was pretty clear to us that that’s what we wanted to do,” he explained. “At that point, we went to work doing some research and trying to understand the best way to go about it, from the design and what we wanted to support. That’s kind of how that all started.”
The truck hit the road in September 2020 and since then has racked up 40,000 miles. Wolfrum said the decision was made to let the truck preach awareness rather than promote a specific organization, with the money going to projects that have a local impact.
“We had someone local in the community who reached out to me who has a child with autism,” he said. “We have what’s called a splash pad, a local park with all the water toys and all that. There’s no fence around this splash pad, and children with autism tend to wander and they’re kind of hard to contain sometimes.
“So, our first project we’re taking on is we’re going to build a fence around this splash pad, probably in the spring, and we’re going to fund that partially from the funds of this truck,” he continued. “The cost of that is probably going to be a little bit more than what we’ve contributed this first year with the truck alone, so we’re going to lead the fundraising efforts and get some other companies in the community involved to finalize that project.”
Response to the truck has been so good, company leadership followed it up with a specially wrapped trailer, this time bringing awareness to domestic violence and human trafficking. The idea was brought to Keller’s management by the local chapter of anti-domestic violence nonprofit Zonta International.
Lacey Spangler, a member of the local organization praised the company for getting on board with the effort, adding that the eye-catching graphics, which include a hotline number to report incidents of trafficking or for victims of abuse to get help, can save lives.
“I think that just shows great initiative on their part, to help with an issue that is ongoing and that does involve the trucking industry,” Spangler said. “There’s so much involved with trafficking that can occur in trucks, with trucking as a front. I think it says a lot [about Keller] to be involved in the community and to help the community and then, to stand up and say we realize this is an issue and we’re going to put ourselves out there to help bring some light to it.
“We want people to know there is help out there,” she said. “Putting that information on a truck that drives across the state and across the country really gets that message out there.”
The company plans to keep the charity truck in circulation at least until the rig is traded out, usually after five years of service. Regardless, Wolfrum said, the spirit of community service and philanthropy will always be part of how the company does business.
“We support our employees who are in the community, and it comes full circle,” he said. “We’ve got a ton of social media interaction on this — and while that wasn’t intent per se, it shows we’ve got people looking out for the truck. They see the truck, they go on our Facebook page and post. We just really get great acceptance to it.
“We’ve always been committed to our employees first and then our community. The support that we’ve seen from this has really been overwhelming,” he concluded.
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.