Precious Cargo

updated 08/07/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, WHEN HE WAS going through a tough divorce, Tommy McDonald, a road-rugged trucker out of Colbert, Okla., got a little help from some unlikely friends: 22 second-grade pen pals from Brighton Elementary School in KansasviUe, Wis. "Their letters made me laugh," says McDonald. "One wrote, 'Don't worry, everything will get better.' "

McDonald, 53, earned that support through a unique program called Trucker Buddy International, which links 3,500 long-distance drivers with 100,000 inquisitive schoolkids in the U.S. (plus a few in Guam, Hungary and Japan). He and the children at Brighton Elementary, who will start fourth grade in the fall, have been corresponding since the fall of '92.

That was shortly after another trucker, Gary King, decided he would fight the monotony of the longdistance haul by writing postcards—first to U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf and then to his children's classmates in Williams Bay, Wis. When the kids wrote back, King showed their letters to other drivers at truck stops. The idea caught on instantly with fellow drivers, and Trucker Buddy was born. "It gets lonesome when you're out there on the road for a long time," says King, 49. "Being a Trucker Buddy gave me a new sense of pride in myself." King has since retired and lives in Arizona City, Ariz., from which he and wife Carol, 48, get schools and truckers together through word of mouth and trucking journals.

One of his earliest pairings put Tommy McDonald with Brighton Elementary district administrator Laurie Wright, who liked the idea of introducing "true-life experiences" into the school's geography and English lessons. "When I got that first batch of letters, I was hooked. I almost immediately started calling them my kids," says McDonald, who has two grown children of his own.

"Their writing has definitely improved," third-grade teacher Shawn Keller says of her students. So has McDonald's. Last December, the trucker took a college correspondence course in children's writing because he wanted to pen cautionary short stories for his pals. One tells the story of Charlie the fly, who (though a window is open) tries to escape McDonald's cab by banging against the windshield. The moral: People often don't see the easiest way.

The kids like the stories but appreciate most having a friend they can trust. "I always have someone to write to if there's no one around or people are being mean," says Jenna Hainey, 9, "and he won't tell your secrets."

BARBARA SANDLER in Kansasville

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