The crisp autumn air, the smell of mouth-watering food, the sound of your friends’ voices trying to communicate through the sound of energetic music and that all too familiar feeling of anticipation, anxiety and hope.
Yes, it’s the picturesque Tennessee gameday tailgate. It’s one that is on its way, yet again, after months of hibernation during the grinding summer months. For some, like the Tennessee players that slap the fabled sign as they exit the locker room, they give their all to put on the best tailgating spectacle for their guests.
Whether they’re breaking out the 4K TVs with satellite reception to view the early slate of games, doing their best Gordon Ramsay impression while laying out a smorgasbord of food and beverages, or going off-land as one of the proud members of the Vol Navy, you will see folks taking in pregame festivities in their own unique way.
Just off of Neyland Drive, you’ll find a spot that is no different. Wendy Boles and her husband, Johnny, will be getting in their pregame reps in fine fashion. What was a small, out-of-commission school bus just over two years ago has been turned into someone that every Tennessee fan would only dream about having in their garage.
“I found it in West Knoxville by the road,” Boles said. “We were going to remodel our kitchen and I found the bus, so that money went to remodeling the school bus. My husband has a background in paint and body work and I had always wanted a tailgate vehicle and I thought that would be really neat to do with the school bus.” By the time the 2017 football season rolled around, the Boles were taking the bus around campus on Saturdays.
“The way I looked at it was, I felt like we had the best tailgate bus around and then we had the worst football team around (in 2017),” Boles said. And when you look the exterior and interior of the bus, it is hard to disagree.
The bus is hard to miss. Whether it’s the Smokey Grey base and solid orange stripe down the middle that emulates the now-shelved Nike alternates, flame decals, or Tennessee traditions such as the lyrics to Rocky Top and a large framed image of Checker Neyland, it’s the ultimate fan vehicle.
But, the experience continues once you climb inside, with items such as:
- Ticket stubs, autographs and other memorabilia behind a glass casing
- A Phillip Fulmer-autographed football
- Game-worn cleats, gloves and helmets
- A section of the former artificial turf surface at Neyland
- A Chamique Holdsclaw-autographed basketball
So, inside and out, the Volunteer Bus is a dream tailgating ride for the most diehard that Vol Nation has to offer. However, the use of the bus (as well as its mission) goes far beyond the University of Tennessee campus on gamedays. Originally, Boles was going to take the bus in public strictly for events related to Tennessee athletics.
“Honestly, it was all football tailgates and basketball – we’re season ticket holders and football and men’s basketball – and that was the No. 1 purpose,” Boles said. “Following our 4-8 season at the close of 2017, I probably would’ve parked the bus until the next season had a friend of mine not requested I bring the bus by her house to show some of her friends.”
On her way to some off the bus to some eager fans, Boles had an encounter that would be the catalyst for giving the Volunteer Bus an entirely new meaning.
“It was the Friday after Christmas in 2017 and I was driving down Central Ave. and it was really, really cold. . .and I passed a man walking down Central Ave. and he was pushing a bicycle and he was limping, so I thought ‘his feet must be frozen,’ so I turned around and I approached him and asked him if he was okay and we just struck up a conversation,” Boles said.
After getting the reluctant man, whose name is Bobby, to give up his bike in exchange for the warmth and shelter of the bus, Boles then said that the next few moments were eye-opening.
“I was probably with him 10 minutes max, but I learned so much about him that it really just transformed the purpose and my mission with the bus,” Boles said. “He was living in the woods at Callahan (Rd.) and Central Ave. and he had been homeless only for three months at the time, he lost everything due to his alcoholism, he was 40 years old, he went to the same elementary, middle and high school that I went to and I just felt really connected with him.”
Beyond the personal connection that Boles made through this encounter, she also learned of just how many people were in need right close to home.
“He was telling me about some of the other homeless areas that were right in my backyard, literally, and I had no idea,” Boles said. “So, I got a group of my friends together and I was telling a co-worker that Monday at work and he gave me $30 and he said to go and buy some cheeseburgers because you can get cheeseburgers from McDonald’s for a dollar, so I bought a case of water and 30 cheeseburgers and we picked Bobby up and just drove around. He showed me where these people were and it was just so moving to do that.”
Since this experience, Boles says that she uses the bus for ministry and volunteering purposes at least once per week. Through this process, the wider purpose of the bus has become more known throughout the local community, multiplying the amount of hands to help out and donations to increase, in turn. One such example is how she has been able to regularly donate hundreds of loaves of day-old bread from a local bread company. It’s a connection that was made when the bus’s mission was spread via word-of-mouth.
“I give to schools, churches, any opportunity that I have or any need that I’m made aware of to where they could use bread. . .even a local high school football team, I’ll give them 15 loaves of bread and they’ll feed their players that stay after school and practice,” Boles said. “It doesn’t even have to be people who are impoverish or are in need, per say, just giving to somebody, it inspires them to give. . .it’s really contagious giving.”
Boles says that whenever she ministers with the bus, she can have anywhere from just one to multiple people helping out, whether they be friends, church members and local groups. She also says that the process is a great way for kids to get involved with service to their communities.
“A lot of my friends like to expose their kids to this type of service. I feel that it’s a good way to minister and meet the needs of our community and it’s good for kids because they really like doing this,” Boles said.
Boles has also found great ways to tie-in the new purpose of the bus with its original purpose: making a fun gameday atmosphere on the UT campus.
“I load the bus with water, I love to give away free water and at various places on campus, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find something to drink if you’re not up at Vol Village or around some of the vending spots in the heart of campus. If you don’t have a cooler or your own drinks, you’re going to be thirsty,” Boles said.
The tailgate giving doesn’t stop with the water, though.
“Throughout the year, I collect t-shirts, youth-sized Tennessee jerseys, any football I can get my hands on and I love to stock the bus with those,” Boles said. “I get over to campus really early and you do see some kids over there with their families and friends and it’s just really neat to give them a football that they can pass while they’re waiting on the gates to open at the stadium.”
Boles and her husband also collect any shirts that either have a Tennessee logo or are orange-colored to give away to anyone that may be unable to afford both game tickets and the appropriate gear.
“It’s really special when we do that for the Orange & White Game because some families just can’t afford to buy tickets and go to the (regular season) games and with parking, the whole event can be pricey for some families and that may be the only chance some of these kids get to go into the stadium,” Boles said.
Boles says that the bus didn’t have an official name until just over a year ago, but when she came up with the title, she felt that it fit, perfectly.
“It took awhile to figure out what I was going to call the bus,” Boles said. “I was just thinking sports-themed, the University of Tennessee-themed and trying not to infringe on any copyrights or things like that, pertaining to the university. But, it’s the Volunteer Bus and, really, that’s what it is. . .it’s being the hands and feet of Jesus and it’s just having a servant’s heart and it’s really contagious.”
If anyone is wanting to help support the mission of the Volunteer Bus and is unsure of where to start, Boles says that almost anything can help.
“I take pretty much anything: from toothpaste and toothbrushes, to socks, gloves, toboggans. . .basic hygiene items like deodorant and I have plenty of room in the bus to stock that, because if it’s something that I can give away in the bus, it’s something, by word-of-mouth, I can get it into the right hands so it can be used.”
If you want to find out more about the Volunteer Bus and/or contact Boles for information, visit the official Facebook page.
Have hygiene items, food, clothing and/or gameday gear that you would like to donate? You can drop off items at: First Volunteer Bank located at 2367 Callahan Dr. in North Knoxville (8-4 M-F) OR KC Kitchen Center at 5902 Kingston Pike in Bearden (8-5 T-F, 9-2 Sat.)
Be on the lookout for the Volunteer Bus on campus off of Neyland Drive on UT gamedays, starting this Saturday before the Vols kick off their 2019 season against Georgia State.