Paying it forward: Truckers raise millions for Special Olympics

November 19, 2018

Mark Schremmer


Photo by Mark Schremmer
OOIDA member Kevin Vogt and Special Olympics gold medalist Jeremiah Ellis participate in the 2018 truck convoy at Joplin, Mo. (Photo by Mark Schremmer)

Perched up in the passenger seat of a 2006 Peterbilt 379, Special Olympics gold medalist Jeremiah Ellis was soaking it all in.

Hundreds of spectators lined the 11.7-mile truck convoy route in Joplin, Mo., to celebrate athletes like Jeremiah and to cheer on the 522 participating trucks that helped raise $191,175 for Special Olympics of Southwest Missouri.

Jeremiah was busy waving, throwing candy to spectators, and reaching out of the truck window to show off the three gold medals he won for bowling at the 2018 USA Games in Seattle.

If anyone was prouder than Jeremiah, it was Kevin and Lisa Vogt, a pair of OOIDA members from Checotah, Okla., who have escorted the Neosho, Mo., athlete in the Special Olympics truck convoy the past two years.

“Be sure to show everyone your medals,” Lisa told Jeremiah. “We are so proud of you.”

A truck driver who is leased on to Landstar, Kevin Vogt has been involved in the Guilty By Association Truck Show Special Olympics convoy for several years. He and Lisa have escorted an athlete the past four.

“One time I came through town and saw all of this going on,” Kevin said. “I asked what was happening, and I was told it was for Special Olympics. I said that I wanted to be involved.

“So many people are so self-absorbed that they don’t take time to do things for the less fortunate. I feel like I’ve been afforded some opportunities that others haven’t, so I want to pay it forward. You never know when you might be the person who is down and out.”

Vogt’s feelings are echoed throughout the trucking industry. Since the first Special Olympics truck convoy took place in 2001 in Florida, thousands of truckers have participated in convoys across the United States and Canada to help raise millions of dollars for the charity.

In Joplin alone, the convoy has generated close to $700,000 since teaming up with GBATS in 2011. Each truck in the Joplin convoy donates at least $100 to Special Olympics.

Photo by Jami Jones
Jon Osburn, the skipper of OOIDA’s touring tractor-trailer, drives The Spirit during a Special Olympics truck convoy in Sioux Falls, S.D., in September. The convoy raised $75,000. (Photo by Jami Jones)

“It’s our No. 1 fundraiser,” said Robin Anderson, development director for Special Olympics Missouri. “It pretty much carries us for the year for our sports competitions and training for the athletes.”

During the convoy’s fundraising auction on Sept. 29 in Joplin, Anderson teared up several times as truckers dug deep in their pockets for the organization’s 1,556 athletes in the Southwest Missouri area. The auction, which was for the first 15 spots in the convoy as well as the caboose, generated $105,800 in about 30 minutes. Donnie and Beverly Ledgerwood of Birch Tree, Mo., donated $18,000 for the top spot alone. The auction also drew $2,700 for an original painting of a big rig participating in the convoy for Special Olympics by St. Louis artist Vesna Delevska.

The donations make activities like Jeremiah’s trip to compete in Seattle possible.

“There’s really not any words,” Anderson said. “It was so amazing and so unexpected. It’s a bunch of regular people coming together to help out our athletes. Seeing their kind hearts can be overwhelming at times.”

While Joplin’s truck convoy for Special Olympics may be the biggest, it’s certainly not the only place truck drivers come together to support the nonprofit organization. According to the Special Olympics website, truck convoy fundraisers occur in 26 states and two Canadian provinces.

The Wisconsin convoy garnered 175 trucks and nearly $100,000. Since 2005, the truck convoys have raised more than $1.2 million for Wisconsin Special Olympics athletes.

South Dakota hosted convoys in Sioux Falls and Rapid City. The Sioux Falls convoy hauled in $75,000 with 151 trucks participating. OOIDA senior member Marty Ellis, who serves as the chairman of the South Dakota convoy’s planning committee, said the fundraiser surpassed the $64,000 generated in 2017. About 70 trucks participated in the fifth annual convoy at Rapid City to raise $29,000.

Meanwhile, the 14th annual Brant County Special Olympics Truck Convoy in Ontario, Canada, raised about $75,000, and the Arkansas convoy generated more than $40,000. Dozens of other truck convoys delivered tens of thousands of dollars each.

And, of course, those numbers are just a mere sampling of the goodwill created by the annual events.

“A lot of the drivers build relationships with the athletes,” said Tammy Blackwell, the convoy coordinator for Brant County. “Some of them exchange Christmas cards and birthday cards. These guys do it for the right reasons. It’s extremely heartwarming to see. I wish we could bottle whatever is in that room that day.”

Anderson said many of Special Olympics’ activities wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of truck drivers.

“They are probably the most generous and kindhearted group of people I know,” she said. “Truckers are so compassionate and involved in our program. They genuinely care about our athletes and what they can do for our athletes.

“They are some of the kindest big ol’ teddy bears you’ll ever find. I see the tears at the show, and I know it’s coming from the heart.”