Leaundrea Manning of Shawnee, Kansas says that if you’d told her a year ago that she’d be on the forefront in a national crisis, she wouldn’t have believed you.

Manning is one of the nation’s 3.5 million professional truck drivers who are keeping the shelves of our grocery stores stocked and delivering other necessary supplies to keep the country going. Suddenly, truckers are the new American heroes.

Customers are not shy about letting Manning know that they appreciate what she does. “I hear that all the time,” she tells IWF. “I feel like what I do is just a small part. I do what I can. Anything to make people feel like there’s any type of peace and normality in their lives right now, I’m all there for it.” 

She adds, laughingly, “I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘You make my day go by because without my Mountain Dew or without my Dr. Pepper, I would go crazy.’ And I’m like, Wow. I didn’t realize it was so important to so many people.”

Unlike cross country truckers, Manning, who drives a Pepsi truck, is able to get home every night. She has three children at home, aged 13, 14, and 18, who do online school lessons while Leaundrea is driving.

Customers are not shy about letting Leaundrea Manning know that they appreciate what she does.

Manning arrives at work on a typical day at around 4:30 am. “It’s very scary,” she says. “First off, going out in the morning you have to sanitize your truck. You don’t know who’s been inside of it because they move it to load it at night. So, we have to sanitize our trucks. A lot of guys, they wear masks because, they are actually a lot older, so they’re worried about catching the virus.”

After work, Manning takes precautions before going into her house. She removes her boots and puts her clothes into the washing machine in the garage. She sprays everything with Lysol. “Everything has to come off,” she says. “I don’t take anything inside of the house. Everything goes straight into the washer and dryer, and it’s washed with hot water at least for an hour. I put it on the extra time for the wash, just to make sure, and I immediately go upstairs and jump in the shower. My kids don’t touch me, they don’t come near me until I shower.”

Leaundrea, who washes her hands “about a million times a day,” admits that she thinks about the danger of working with the public during a pandemic. Has she ever thought about not working because of the dangers? “It’s crossed my mind a few times,” she admits. “But I want to be able to take care of my kids. There are a lot of families who don’t have any kind of income coming in right now. There are some people who are waiting anxiously for the stimulus check. I don’t want to have to do that. I’ve got this job, I know how to do this job, and I want to provide for my kids. And I take precautions.”

Leaundrea attributes her strong work ethic to her parents. “My mother worked for General Motors for 30 years,” she recalls. “And I never saw her do anything but get up and go to work. That was important. She showed us that you go and make a paycheck so you are able to take care of your responsibilities. My dad was the same way. He worked at General Motors and he also worked at the Post Office. So that’s all I’ve ever known, a strong family work ethic. Nobody sat around and just didn’t do anything. You got up and you went to work. And I was determined not to fail. I wanted to make sure that my children were taken care of. That is the most important thing to me.”

“When I started truck driving, I was 25 years old,” she says.” That was 8 years ago. “I was working two jobs before I started truck driving, and I didn’t know where I was going to end up. My mom had passed away when I first started my job, and I was so scared because a lot of people, they have their parents as a safe haven. Like, if something goes wrong, they will help. So, I was scared.”

Leaundrea’s mother, Joyce Huntley, was in the last stages of illness when her daughter was preparing to join the company for which she now works. “My mom died a week after I started my job. The week I had my orientation was the week she ended up going to the hospital. She had to call 911 and she told me, ‘I don’t want you to go to the hospital with me. I want you to go to bed so you can go to orientation.’  I said that I wanted to be with her, that orientation was no big deal. She said, ‘No, go to your orientation. It is important. I need for you to go to your orientation.’ You couldn’t fight with my momma, so I went to my orientation. I went up to the hospital after I did my orientation, and she said ‘I told you everything was gonna be fine. I knew you would do it. And I know you will succeed. And now you’re in the door and you don’t have to worry about anything.’ After I left the hospital that day, she fell into a coma. That was the last time I talked to her.”

Out on the road, Manning says that there is an esprit de corps—people go out of their way to be kind to each other.

Leaundrea started working in the warehouse, but she always had her eye on a truck driving position, which is a more lucrative job with good benefits. “When I started, there hadn’t been a woman in the driving department for 15 years,” she says. “I worked in the warehouse for a few months, and then they trained me to drive a truck. Everybody had an opinion about this. I used to hear people say ‘Oh, I’ll give her two weeks. She’s not gonna last,’ and here I am eight years later.” 

She brings a touch of femininity to the job. “I’m a woman woman,” she says. “Like, I’m not a woman who dresses like the guys or anything. I have my nails done. I wear makeup, my hair is done, everything. And they just thought that I wasn’t going to be able to handle it. But here I am.”

The government has loosened some trucking regulations for the coronavirus crisis. “I think that has been very important,” Manning says. “because there’s actually a truck driver shortage right now in this country, and if we were only able to work 60 hours a week, drivers would be off for two days, and it would be quite bit harder to restock the stores.  At one point the stores were completely empty. I mean, when I say completely empty, I mean completely empty. They let up on a lot on weight limits, too. You are able to get two or three more pallets inside of the truck, which in turn, means you can take more out to the stores. So, I think that that’s a good thing.”

Out on the road, Manning says that there is an esprit de corps—people go out of their way to be kind to each other. She’s had grocers remind her to take sanitizers from their shelves, because they know her schedule makes shopping hard, and she in turn tries to give some material assistance to the homeless she sees—but always at a physical distance. 

Leaundrea’s main concern, as always, is her children. She wants to keep life normal for them. They are at home all day, working on online school classes. “Nobody’s really in a depressed or panicky type of mode,” she says, “but we pray. I always tell them you can’t worry about it, you have to pray about it. You have to pray and give it to God. He’s gonna take care of you. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s in His will. Whatever happens, it’s on Him. You’ve got to hand all that stress over.”

She brings a touch of femininity to the job.

Her youngest daughter does stress a bit, though, and sometimes she begs her mother not to go to work. “I know I have got it under control, but my daughter, she’s my youngest and she’s more scared, and she’ll say ‘I just wish you wouldn’t go outside, it’s not safe outside.’ I’m like, baby, I’m being as cautious as I can be. I’m doing the best I can. I just don’t want us to be in a situation where we don’t have anything. Because I know some people who don’t have anything. They don’t have any income coming in, because they’re a hairdresser, or they do nails, or things like that. Once their businesses shut down, then they don’t have any income. I don’t want that to be the situation for me and my children, especially if it doesn’t have to be.”

A column recently noticed that truck drivers, nurses and cops, are now more admired than college professors, diversity counselors, and journalists. You only have to meet Leaundrea Manning to realize that we are getting our priorities straight.