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When an entire school pitched in to fulfill an athlete's dream, the sense of accomplishment went far beyond a job well done

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Charles Cottrell wasn’t running — neither was the Ford 150 pickup truck his uncle had given him.

Cottrell, a cross-country runner, was suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and the truck had been sitting in a field for years, rusting away.

Cottrell underwent chemotherapy and radiation, and he’s in remission and running again today. The truck wasn’t as lucky, but thanks to the students at Eastside Technical Center in Lexington, Ky., another Ford pickup was salvaged and refurbished. Like Cottrell, it’s running again, too.

Eastside partnered with the Dream Factory, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes to children who have been diagnosed with critical or chronic illnesses. When the staff at the Dream Factory learned of Cottrell’s wish, they contacted the school for help. “Cottrell’s wish was for this truck of his to be reconditioned,” explains Chris Rakes, a math instructor at Eastside.

“We got it to our school, and it was completely ... it was gone. What we did was, we found a 1986 Ford truck, and he was born in 1986, so it was the same age as he was and that was a really big deal to him. While we were working on the truck, he went into remission.”

The Dream Factory raised the money and solicited for parts and materials for the project. About 250 students from the automotive, diesel and collision repair classes worked on the truck.

“One of the automotive classes rebuilt the transmission and worked on the electronics components,” Rakes says. “The other automotive class worked on all the braking systems, suspension, steering and the engine.

“The diesel class actually ended up rebuilding the engine and worked on the exhaust system, because the automotive classes had so much to do with the brakes, steering and suspension. The collision repair class sanded the whole thing and put new bumpers on it and painted it and did all the cosmetics, inside and out. A tire company donated brand new tires for it. We put on new rims, and it was beautiful.”

Pulling together such a large group and getting everyone to cooperate and learn while on deadline may seem like a logistical nightmare, but the project took on a life of its own.

Chris Dye was one of the automotive technology students who worked on the project. When he and his classmates saw the truck for the first time, they couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to work on it at all, Dye remembers.

“Then we got a new engine for it, and we did the transmission, and more and more people got involved and then it moved over to the diesel class and on to the other classes. It really made everybody closer. And, it made somebody else happy. He [Cottrell] came to the diesel class and was looking at it, and we talked. He’s really a nice guy. If somebody didn’t do this ... well, he had other things to worry about.”

The students did a lot of the work during class time, meaning grades and deadlines came into play.

“To be able to get everybody together and cooperate all from different areas, and come together as a team to get this done and make it work, was a good experience,” explains collision repair student Jonathan Whitacker.

For collision repair student Summer Treadway, helping someone in need has its rewards.

“I think if I were talking to someone who was about to work on a project like this, I’d say, ‘Go for it.’ It’s a great idea. It’s nice to go from a beat-up, rusty truck to seeing this boy being happy. He drove it around the parking lot, and it looked really nice. It was red and white. He picked the colors.”

Besides accomplishing a huge task, the students also picked up some additional skills.

“It was good to collaborate with other classes ... diesel technology, collision repair, because you got to see what their end of working on the project was like. It was different, yet I also learned from them. It was fun,” says automotive technology student Christopher Harris.

School closings because of winter weather and unforeseen problems put the work behind schedule. As each class hurried to get its work done, the students stayed after school late into the evening. Some got permission to spend more than their scheduled half day at Eastside.

And even after school was over for the summer, some students returned to Eastside to continue to work on it.

Right up until the presentation day, students were tightening bolts. The students presented the truck to Cottrell.

His response: “This is a sign of my defeating cancer. The truck and I were both born in 1986, and two years ago neither of us were running. Now look at both of us. I’m stronger than an ox, and my new truck has found new life and is more powerful than ever!”

For automotive technology student Michael Baker, working on the project and meeting Cottrell had an unexpected outcome.

“It has put things into perspective for me,” Baker says. “He had a problem. Me? I worry about silly stuff, but compared to him, he has a life-threatening disease.

“He’s looking at the truck. He’s happy about the truck. Sometimes I get mad over smaller things that are nothing compared to what he’s going through.”

The Story In Pictures

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SkillsUSA Champions | Spring 2004 | Volume 38, No. 3
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