By Mahreen Khan
When a Brooklyn family decided to invest in a 70-foot-long, 18-wheel semi-tractor rig, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
Jeff Mayer and his wife, Angela De Vincenzo, said they bought the truck for their son, 5-year-old Luca, who was born with a cleft palate and suffered speech difficulties. Luca loved trucks and was mesmerized by the sounds of engines and horns, they said.
But as a designer and 10-year head of the branding/merchandising department at Rockstar Games, Mr. Mayer said he also relished the opportunity of delving into an artistic endeavor unlike anything he’d experienced thus far. Transforming the big rig into an experimental art project alongside his wife, Angela De Vincenzo, and close friend, Brooklyn-based artist Adam Stennett, they embarked on a momentous journey and created “Big Mama,” a modern and habitable 18-wheeler. Modeled after his own apartment in Brooklyn, the truck features leather couches, turntables, and unique lighting fixtures. The truck also has an entire section dedicated to children working with blocks while listening to classic vinyl records.
This summer, “Big Mama” arrived at the Hayground School’s summer camp, thanks to Mr. Stennett’s connections to Jon Snow, the camp’s director, and his wife, Kathy Engel. The crew set up the “Blocks, Trucks + Art” program for the campers.
Mr. Mayer said Luca began recognizing the sounds of trucks when he was only six months old and soon began to mimic the sounds they made. Mr. Mayer realized his son’s connection with trucks was therapeutic, so he would take him to construction sites in Brooklyn and Manhattan to look for and photograph different trucks. They spent hours at the local firehouse and when Mr. Mayer saw the joy in his son’s eyes when a trucker let then 3-year-old Luca climb into the cab and blow the horn, it was a turning point.
“I said to my wife, ‘I know this is a struggle when you’re delayed in speaking and your friends are a lot further. We gotta figure out how to build his confidence.’ We then spent the next year driving all over Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey—anywhere we could find an old truck.”
After nearly a year of searching, Mr. Mayer found a truck in southern New Jersey. The seller, who at first Mr. Mayer was a little daft, eventually came around when he realized “what we were doing as a family” was special Mr. Mayer said.
In the end, Mr. Mayer tapped his 401K, and as fate would have it, his bonus from his job at Rockstar Games soon arrived. It was the exact difference of what was owed for the truck, leading him to believe it was his family’s destiny.
Ms. De Vincenzo, an educator at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights, with 15 years of experience, is a huge proponent of block building for child development.
“I was very fortunate to start my career at Bank Street College of Education, where the belief is a learning-by-doing hands-on approach, child-centered learning, and the developmental aspects of the age. I learned very specifically how to use these materials to get children to work together, use their language skills, their spatial reasoning, problem solving, negotiating, compromising—all things that Hayground very much believes in,” said Ms. De Vincenzo.
She stresses the importance of the multisensory experience that working with blocks allows for. By using specific frames of reference, such as photography and literature, Ms. De Vincenzo said integrates disciplines for the kids.
“Most importantly, I think that this community piece, the sensation of working together is hugely powerful. And what’s really cool is it works for kids who are 2, and it works for kids who are 13.”
In addition to the block work, the program works to overcome gender biases by letting girls and boys learn about trucks through the provided trip sheets and walking tours.
Mr. Stennett, who teaches campers about known East End artists and Abstract Expressionism, leads the art program. He speaks enthusiastically of the East End’s art history, with hopes of igniting his passion into his students.
“This is my first time working with younger kids,” he said, adding, “Most kids make amazing art and then at some point, they stop. But you don’t have to stop. You can keep making it for the rest of your life.”
According to Mr. Stennett, the entire team feels fortunate to be at Hayground.
“This location—this very magical, special place has really helped grow the program,” he said.
All in all, the mission is proving to be successful, as evidenced by raving parents and campers. It is now open to children outside of the camp as well. Additionally, Mr. Mayer, a former BMX bike professional, offers bike lessons.
Mr. Snow believes that the “Big Mama” experience is evolving in a beneficial way for campers and staff alike. He especially appreciates the way the program honors the children’s artistic expression.
Emphasizing the scale of the rig, Mr. Snow said children are astonished when they see how big the truck really is.
“What could be cooler than a truck as an art gallery?” he asked.