Thursday, December 22, 2011

A call from the North Pole

Two, four and nine. Those are the ages of three kids in one of the trucking families who would have had little under the tree if not for a surprise gift of $700. The cash came from an unlikely benefactor.

Calling themselves the “Christmas group,” a small troop of volunteer truckers raise money for other truckers in need. The effort has now has grown into an extraordinary group called Trucker Charity Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization with its main office located in Summerfield, IL. While Trucker Charity works all year to help needy drivers, the Christmas effort is the traditional heart of their charitable work.

Tuesday night they set up a conference line and methodically went through the process of calling 10 families and surprising them with a generous, no-strings attached gift of cash. With every call, it was announced that they were “calling from the North Pole …”

Secretary of the Christmas group is OOIDA Member Eldon McFarling.

“Words cannot describe the feeling you get when you hear the joyful, emotional response from the family members,” Eldon said later. “It’s something you have to experience firsthand.”

Eldon and Trucker Charity president (and OOIDA Life Member) Lance Wood invited me to sit in on Tuesday night’s mission. I told them later I was glad I had a box of Kleenex handy. The spirit of Christmas was shining bright last night as they gave away $7,000 worth of MoneyGrams.

“I never knew there were so many people who cared,” said one tearful woman whose husband has ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She accepted the gift on behalf of her husband, a former expediter whose disease has progressed to the point he can’t talk.

The couple had been nominated by OOIDA Members Bob and Linda Caffee, who are Fed Ex Custom Critical owner-operators and who just happened to be home in Silex, MO. Linda Caffee joined the conference call during the presentation as she navigated downtown St. Louis.

“It was one of those moments when the true meaning of Christmas really smacks you upside the head,” Linda said later.

OOIDA Member David Gilland of Nettleton, MS, was driving across the Pennsylvania Turnpike last night while tapped into the Christmas group’s conference call. He was asked if he wanted to make the call to the couple he and some trucker friends had nominated.

“Sure,” said David, aka Bullwinkle.

Trucker Charity’s Greg Manchester explained that this couple had really been struggling. He was an ex-Marine and didn’t like a handout. But the company he was leased to had cut his miles back, there were bills to pay, and the house needed repair. Christmas was virtually non-existent for them and their three kids. The couple was speechless. She was sobbing.  

“They don’t think drivers do anything for each other anymore,” said David, who was tooling down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, connected via his Bluetooth device. “This is proof that that is just not true.”

Like David, most of the truckers who were on the conference call were doing business. Occasionally one would say something like “Hold on, I got to catch a ride to the yard.” Or “Thanks to that call, I just walked through a warehouse with tears running down my cheek.”

The group called one driver and his wife and happened to catch up with them at a West Memphis truck stop.

The family was really having a tough time of it, said Greg, and the family included a 15-year-old boy who was being home schooled in the truck.

The wife said tearfully that they really hadn’t had anything good happen in the past couple years. We talked to the couple’s son, too. He was 15 and a well-spoken kid. He told us he’d rather be on the truck with his parents than home. The boy thanked the group, saying that Christmas had not been good for the past few years. His dad chimed in, saying he’d been out on the road 40 years and never had to ask for a handout. He promised when he got back on his feet, would “pay it forward.”

I heard that “pay it forward” phrase a lot Tuesday night.

OOIDA members Debbie and Jeff Zehrer, Sauk Centre, MN, are owners of Cubby Buddy toolboxes for semi truckers. They are drivers and also sponsors of the Christmas Group. Debbie was there to get the information from each family to get the money to them in the most convenient way. You could tell she was no newbie to the process.

“Where are you gonna be tomorrow? Tennessee? Will there be a Wal-Mart close by? We’ll send you $700 in a MoneyGram or put it on your Green Dot, whatever is best for you.”

One of the last trucking families that the group contacted was a couple who happened to be talking to each other on the phone when we called. She was at home; he was on the road. They were hitting bottom, overrun with truck repairs. Within seconds, we had them both on the conference call.

“If you only knew,” he said, clearly astounded and hugely relieved by the $700 gift. “Getting this at the last minute? If you ONLY knew. I was just saying to my wife, what the heck are we gonna do?”

He was going to stay out and work Christmas, but after getting the call, he said he’d be thinking about that.

“We are all truckers, too,” the selected families were all assured. “We understand what you are going through.”

The Christmas Group trucker volunteers have been doing this for four years. In those four years, Trucker Charity Christmas Group helped 59 families and dispersed over $37,000. This year, they raised $7,000 in three weeks.

They raised the funds by selling items on the Trucker Charity Christmas Group Fundraising website and via donations.  On Dec 19, a panel of volunteers, including OOIDA Member Kerry Mullins of West Lafayette IN, and OOIDA Life Member Ralph Acocella of Hickory, NC, waded into about two dozen applications and made their way through a selection process, which is done by a secret vote and based on a point system for an unbiased treatment of the families. Out of two dozen nominations, 16 were determined viable and then came the hard part – choosing the final 10.

“It was tough choosing 10, so many truckers need help right now,” said Lance.

“We are a group who cares,” was the simple explanation.

“We are all truckers and we are from – well, all over the place,” said one participant.

On Tuesday night, though, they were all from the North Pole.