For 20 years, Holy Redeemer students have been mapping the miles and sharing in friendship with a long-distance truck driver, making priceless educational, social and spiritual connections from their third-grade classroom.
HRS teacher Mary Surprenant started the Adopt-A-Trucker program with her brother Gary Scharfencamp. But for much of the past two decades, her brother Dick Scharfencamp has been the trucking icon in the classroom.
"Four of my five brothers are truckers," Surprenant said. "It works out really well because we study geography in social studies. We also tie in a lot of other concepts."
Teacher Mary Surprenant, left back, and her trucking-driving brother Dick Scharfencamp posed with third-graders Joey Hutchinson, left front, Christina Purrington, Madelyn Allex, Danielle Ewing, Gabriella Schlenner, Logan Deutz, Kaylee Van Hauwaert, Peter Tappe, Jaden Dobrenski, Brody Deutz and Jackson Thooft recently at Holy Redeemer School in Marshall. Not pictured: Natalie Marlow and Hannah Ehlenbach.
Every so often, the third-grade students get a postcard from Dick Scharfencamp.
"Each time, he tells us where he's been going, and we take our highlighters and draw where he went," Jaden Dobrenski said.
Students not only have individual maps to follow Scharfencamp's routes, but they also spotlight his traveling by sticking pins in various places on the classroom's colorful map of the United States.
"We track where he's been," Logan Deutz said. "He usually goes to Montana, Idaho and Washington."
In return, Scharfencamp gets friendship and prayers sent his way, Surprenant said.
"Dick was never able to have children of his own, so he really embraces the opportunity to come spend time with the kids," she said. "He loves being around kids."
Years ago, Scharfencamp used to haul for Slumberland, so he was able to visit the school more often, Surprenant said, but he still makes the effort to come visit as often as he can.
"He used to come to lunch and go to recess, but now his
traveling has changed," Surprenant said. "He shared his trip of a lifetime to Alaska with the kids. He always says that the kids get stuff from this experience, but that he gets a lot back from it, too. He really believes that their prayers help keep him safe."
Scharfencamp allowed the students to inspect every inch of his truck when he visited HRS recently. According to the students, the experience was both fun and educational.
"It's fun that he will come and let us in his truck," Deutz said. "I like (the project) because you can learn some geography and also learn stuff about trucking."
In his most recent postcard, Scharfencamp wrote that he had enjoyed coming to the school and meeting the students.
"I'm doing my usual route," he said. "I went to Montana and Idaho and back. The roads have been pretty good lately, but lots of wind. I can't wait for spring. Be good. Keep praying for me."
After reading the correspondence to her class, Surprenant took the time to review some of the things they'd learned this year. When she asked what the front part of the truck was called, Dobrenski answered "the cab."
"It was fun," he said of checking out Scharfencamp's truck. "I learned what the parts of the truck were called."
Then, Surprenant asked what was behind the cab.
"It's like a little bed," Peter Tappe said.
Danielle Ewing added, "It's a sleeper."
When asked why truck drivers might need a sleeper, Deutz, who said his dad was a trucker, raised his hand and answered.
"It's because they go everywhere and they might stop some place and it might not have hotels or anywhere to sleep," Deutz said.
Surprenant added that it could get very expensive to be in a hotel each night since they're often on the road a lot. Then, Surprenant asked how you could tell by looking if a truck had a sleeper or not.
"It's a little higher in the back of the cab," Joey Hutchinson said.
Dobrenski correctly named "the trailer," while Deutz was quick to remember that Scharfencamp called the refrigerator unit "the reefer."
"One of his jobs as a truck driver is to ensure that the quality of the products that he's hauling stays good," Surprenant said. "So it's very important that things are running right."
Like a number of other students, Kaylee Van Hauwaert enjoyed climbing up into the trailer.
"I got to go in the back of the truck," she said. "I was long, like putting two classrooms together, but skinnier."
Van Hauwaert recalled the experience of having the door shut unexpectedly, for about five seconds.
"It was scary," she said. "We couldn't see anything."
Hannah Ehlenbach and Natalie Marlow were absent the day Scharfencamp visited, but Marlow could guess what Surprenant heard inside the trailer when the door closed.
"Screams," Marlow said.
In his postcard, Scharfencamp teased the students about locking them in the trailer next time and going for a ride around town.
"I think my brother has my sense of humor," Surprenant said.
Despite her absence, Ehlenbach said she feels like she knows the trucker.
"He seems like a nice person," she said. "I like that you sort of learn about the U.S. I just think the maps are fun, too."
Surprenant pointed out that Idaho is the potato state, so everywhere found the state on the map. Then students reviewed directions, oceans that border the U.S. and the Rocky Mountains, which are near Scharfencamp's route.
"I like to drag our fingers to the places he goes," Van Hauwaert said.
In the fourth quarter, Surprenant will tie in lessons about native americans and pioneers.
"We'll talk about those very first people who had to cross through those mountains because they wanted to get to places where they could buy land and live," she said. "It was not easy because there were no roads, inter-states, highways or semis back then."
Science concepts like friction and force were also reintroduced to the students, as were key words like jack knife.
"The chains on the tires, when he's driving through the mountains, it's friction," Surprenant said. "It helps to grip the tires onto the snow so it doesn't suddenly start sliding."
Trucks with heavy loads also take longer to stop and often take wide turns, Surprenant told the class, adding that safety is very important.
"Truckers ned to have time off, too," she said. "That's for safety, for themselves and for other people on the highway. They have to get sleep and they have to document that in their log book."
Since driving a semi is expensive, with all the diesel fuel necessary, Surprenant asked students what truckers needed to have lined up for them when they unload.
"They need another load ready for them and they can't run out of hours or they'll have to call somebody else," Deutz said.
While third-grade students gain a unique friendship and learning experience throughout the school year, the connections don't necessarily stop when the final school bell rings each year.
"Dick has been doing this for so long that his truck will pull up and middle schoolers will say, 'Hi, Dick,'" Surprenant said. "That's really neat. And since he's on the road a lot, the prayer part is pretty neat, too."