Union Pacific engineer John Varnell was standing on the sidelines of a Pee Wee football game in Rison, Arkansas, chatting with another father about a subject near and dear to his heart: railroad safety.
Varnell was talking about children and crossing safety, while the father was talking about his son who has autism and his son’s learning style.
The conversation got Varnell thinking. How do you educate children with special needs about railroad crossing safety, especially when some children learn better with a hands-on approach?
Suddenly – pardon the railroad pun – a train horn went off in Varnell’s head.
Varnell, who is a longtime safety volunteer with Union Pacific’s UP CARES program, thought it would be great to incorporate an actual train horn into a railroad crossing safety presentation for special needs children in Rison.
He figured it was a way to let students see, feel, and touch an actual train horn, while educating them on railroad crossing points.
“I was trying to think outside the box and find a way to reach children, some of whom are very sensitive to loud noises,” said Varnell.
Varnell has been a UP CARES volunteer for about eight years and gives safety presentations to children about two or three times a year. He has worked at Union Pacific for 22 years and is based in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
His quest to find a train horn started with Buck Russel, senior supervisor – Public Safety, who thought it was a great idea. He suggested Varnell reach out to the locomotive facility in North Little Rock.
Mark Smith, general director – locomotive operations, and Mark Shaw, director – systems locomotive facility, were happy to help. They found a train horn that Varnell could use, and took the diaphragm out, so the train horn wouldn’t accidentally sound or be misused.
“It was a real unique approach and we thought it was great way for our two different departments to work together,” said Shaw.
Varnell agreed. “When we can work together like this, it’s a win-win for everybody. Without the locomotive department, we don’t have trains,” he laughed.
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The ultimate beneficiaries of this collaborative effort were the kids. The 70-pound horn, along with safety material provided by Varnell, was used as part of a railroad safety presentation for special needs children at Rison Elementary School.
“The students really enjoyed looking at and touching the train horns. We discussed in detail why there are train horns and we even had them listen to train horns via Internet. All the students participated and earned their Chuggington Rail Safety Pledge certificate,” said Sallie Socia, a special education teacher at Rison Elementary who worked with Varnell to provide train safety to her students.
The train horn was such a success it was later used to educate some 3- and 5-year-olds at a head start program in Cleveland County, Arkansas.
“I know this sounds cliché, but it’s true – even if we can save one kid’s life, it makes it all worth it,” said Varnell.
“If you see something where you can make a difference, go for it!”