A Honking Good Time

By Joann Miller

The kids were lined up along the outside of the partition, faces pressed against smooth glass and eyes wide with amazement. They marveled at the construction equipment digging a deep hole on the other side of the wall. Equipment as large as the dinosaurs they studied in summer camp was scooping dirt from the soon-to-be indoor aquatic center, and the kids were mesmerized. The glass wall was needed for safety purposes: kids on construction sites are not a good fit—but kids and construction vehicles could be. As recreation professionals, we constantly look for programs and events relevant to our communities. When I saw dozens of kids watching the construction vehicles build the natatorium, I realized the opportunity.

Birth Of A Community Event
Blue Valley Recreation Commission’s Touch-A-Truck in Overland, Kan., was started 11 years ago as a way to reach children in the agency’s service area, but it became more than that. The event strengthened community ties. As the first experience of its type in the metro area, was an opportunity for preschoolers ages 3 to 6 (with an adult) to experience hands-on the very vehicles they were looking at from behind the glass. It was natural to open the event further and turn local businesses into community partners. Hospitals, city municipalities, tow truck services, and even FedEx now look forward to the face-to-face communication.

Not Just For Kids
Companies send the vehicles to the event at their own expense, and drivers often volunteer their time, so it’s crucial to make them feel important. While the vehicles may not arrive to much pomp and circumstance, all exhibitors are treated as VIPs. Each one is welcomed upon entering the area and given a sign with the agency’s logo and the company name displayed for all to see. This is done because sometimes it’s difficult to see the company’s name on a vehicle. The signs help parents make a connection between vehicle and exhibitor. After booths and vehicles are set, fresh fruit, coffee, and pastries are waiting. Later, during the event, staff members personally deliver a special “thank-you” basket. This atmosphere creates a family feel with business owners, vehicle drivers, and patrons engaging in friendly conversation.

“We always look forward to this event,” comments a driver for FedEx. “People see our trucks on the road all the time, but we want to make sure they see the people sitting behind the wheel. This allows us to meet and greet and offer road-safety education.”

Safety FirstThis event offers clean, safe fun. In reality, the safe part should be listed first (it just rolls off the tongue better). With hundreds of attendees roaming around, it’s important that everyone is comfortable knowing that safety comes first. Vehicles must be set with chop blocks by a certain time, or they aren’t allowed in the area, and no vehicle leaves until the all-clear horn sounds. The only exception is the working ambulance, which is positioned close to the gate should a call come in, and barriers are ready to rope off an exit lane. An outdoor parking area allows for ample space between the vehicles so wait lines don’t overlap. A volunteer armed with cold water ensures that all volunteers and exhibitors unable to leave their post stay hydrated. Water is also provided for visitors. Recently, families have been bringing kids younger than the allowed ages, so special activities like a Little Tykes race track and a Hot Wheels play area have been integrated so toddlers can participate without climbing on the vehicles.

Overcoming Roadblocks
Every event has its own challenges. Blue Valley Recreation serves the boundaries of a school district—the commission is not affiliated with one city but serves parts of five different cities—so getting city police and fire vehicles required an extra effort. Communication with the host city on Touch-A-Truck led to a wider partnership on other events and programs. Police officers also attend one of the safety events for kids, and the fire department now asks for the commission’s help with a “sirens and lights, turn to the right” campaign. The local police and fire departments also require the event to be free, so organic sponsors play an important role in covering the cost of incidentals. A local car dealership, construction company, and beverage provider with delivery trucks help nicely.

Going The Extra Mile
Since the inaugural event, many Touch-A-Trucks have become quite popular and are now offered in the area by various entities. Keeping our event fresh is the key to its continued success. Flashy, new vehicles are added each year, but so are new activities. The event has grown into more than just the touching of vehicles: A local library branch sets up a booth with transportation-themed books and activities; Firestone brings a tire-run challenge and hands out completion certificates; and a local Hot Wheels club sends members when it can. Special photo-ops with tires or construction barricades are set up for that picture-perfect memory, and both kid-friendly and adult earplugs are available.

Swag Bags And Treats
Not only are the exhibitors treated like kings of the road, but the kids are also treated in a special way. Each enrollee receives a “swag” bag filled with snacks, stickers, trinkets, and a Hot Wheels car. Many of the businesses also send items for their drivers to distribute. A local tow truck has themed tattoos made special for this event, and the fire department often brings a load of plastic fire hats. In addition to sitting in the driver’s seat, kids get to explore the vehicles while honking horns and working many of the lights. It’s about bringing the entire experience together for all involved.

Widespread Benefits
The event serves as more than a way for kids to see big rigs: it’s an educational opportunity. A school bus company uses the event as a way to ease the anxiety of riding a bus for those heading to kindergarten the next year. Operation Lifesaver attends each year to teach the importance of railroad safety. The Health & Wellness Mobile does free health screenings and discusses nutrition. Blue Valley Recreation even hands out sunscreen to address the topic of sun safety. In return, the public understands more of our mission and learns about community partners. The partners benefit from the friendly atmosphere and gain a better insight on the values of recreational activities.

Joann Miller has 25 years of experience in recreation programming and is the program supervisor for Blue Valley Recreation Commission in Overland Park, Kan. Reach her at jmiller@bluevalleyrec.org.