Driver team goes apes with Trucker Buddies

When Robert and Linda Utteridge pull into a truckstop at night, they do what every trucker on the road does; they fuel up, grab a bite to eat and clean off. But then the Utteridges go looking for postcards, interesting facts, souvenirs and, sometimes, even vegetation to send back home to their pen pals – 125 10-year-olds who write to them and track their progress across the United States on a map in their classroom.

The Utteridges are Trucker Buddies; they are volunteers in a nonprofit organization that teams professional truck drivers with school children in grades 2-8 to enrich literacy and geography programs and promote safety awareness.

On a recent trip through Mississippi, the Utteridges sent a group of postcards to their pen pals from Southeast Elementary in Brighton, Colo. The postcards had historical and geographic facts; they also had hanging moss attached to them, because the children are studying epiphytes from different regions.

As Trucker Buddies, the Utteridges are responsible for planning program goals with the class teachers.

“We look for things that are historically significant,” says Linda Utteridge. “The kids track routing and learn about geography. We have been most impressed with the way this program promotes literacy with the children.”

One-third of the children in the five classes the Utteridges are partnered with are Hispanic, and most of those speak Spanish as their primary language. As part of the program, the classes write to the Utteridges at least once a month. Linda says she can already see the long-term effects this program has on the lives of the children.

One boy in the grade was working at a first-grade reading level and refused to write in the beginning of the year. After participating in the endangered-species-awareness program, he began to write letters.

“When we came on board, he decided it was OK to write,” Linda says. “He wrote a letter to us that said, ‘I learned orangutans are smart, and we need to protect them.’ The program works for children like him because it’s about fun, not about being graded. We try to teach them learning for fun.”

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The Trucker Buddy program began in 1992 when Gary King, a trucker, wrote postcards to his wife’s elementary class. Kenworth sponsored the program as it expanded, and it now involves almost 5,000 truckers who are paired with 5,000 classrooms across the United States. Truckers join the program on a volunteer basis and are paired with a teacher. Truckers must hold a CDL and plan the programs with the teacher; they also agree to correspond with the class on a regular basis.

“The program is simply what you make of it,” Linda says. “But most of the truckers in the Buddy Program are at least as involved as we are, if not more.”

The Utteridges’ first class was in Nebraska in 1995, and they remained with that teacher until she moved in 1999. They contacted the principal at Southeast Elementary in their hometown of Brighton, and showed her materials from their previous classes. After looking it over, she asked them to pen pal with the entire fourth grade.

The Utteridges decided to expand the classes’ horizons even beyond the journeys of the 18-wheeler. They began a worldwide pen-pal program with grade-school children and paired each class with an endangered species from their pen pals’ region. This year, the fourth grade in Brighton wrote to schoolchildren in Rwanda, Tanzania, Indonesia and Borneo.

“I saw a documentary on PBS about the gorillas, and at the end it showed a group of schoolchildren with a bunch of blue uniforms,” Linda says. “I thought, ‘Wow. We can extend our pen-pal program and make it global.'”

At the beginning of the year, the Utteridges set a goal to teach their pen pals about the importance of respecting the world around them.

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘We do not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it,'” Linda says. “We are all interconnected, so we have a responsibility to protect this planet. We’re trying to teach these kids to keep safety in mind on the road, to conserve fuel and to recycle.”

During the program, the classes studied mountain gorillas, lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and gibbons. They wrote letters to the Utteridges and to their pen-pal classes across the world, and received responses from each area. At the Trucker Buddy Day in October, the Utteridges met their pen pals and heard presentations about truck safety and the endangered species study.

The Trucker Buddies classes also participated in a U.S. DOT No-Zone program. The children learned about blind spots on a truck, the squeeze play and safe traveling distances. At the end of the program, they scored 100 percent on an interactive website quiz.

“The program has helped these fourth-grade children in three different areas,” says Carol Franks, principal of Southeast Elementary. “It has let the students make a world connection; they have a personal experience that broadens their horizons. It has expanded the curriculum and given them an opportunity to study the endangered animals. And it’s also been enjoyable to write their Trucker Buddies as they travel. It’s given them a real reason to write.

So what’s next for the Utteridge’s Trucker Buddy classes? Linda says they come up with whatever they can to interest the kids, and they are studying air displacement next.

“Truckers have a saying that in the winter, they deal with black ice, cold weather and snow. In summer, they have to deal with campers,” Linda says. “We want to teach them what happens with drivers of campers who don’t know about the force of air and aren’t paying attention.”

“The program has had a huge impact on children. We see them in town all the time when we go out to dinner,” Linda says. “They think we’re famous. We tell them we aren’t; we’re just ordinary people who happen to do extraordinary things.”

Robert Utteridge, 54, has been driving for 34 years, and his wife, Linda Bittman Utteridge, 49, has been driving for 20 years. They are co-owners of GDI Trucking in Brighton.

“We feel we’re making a difference in the future of this planet by being a part of this,” Linda says. “These kids are our future. We want them to know they should be kind to animals and be kind to themselves.”

For more information on the Trucker Buddy International Program, call (800) MY-BUDDY or visit the website at

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