“Give me a Big O,” the team of energetic fifth-grade cheerleaders shouted out. “O” was the resounding answer from more than 1,000 first, second and third-graders at a Tennessee elementary school recently.

The cheerleaders and their enthusiastic responders continued to spell out: “O-L-L-I-E,” until they reached the finale: “What have you got?” “OLLIE, OLLIE!” the kids shouted back, as the 7-foot-tall “Ollie the Otter” character entered the gymnasium. The students were participants in a dynamic, fast-paced safety program, with a dual message focusing on: booster seat use and urging parents to slow down when they see orange construction barrels.

This “Ollie” moment was repeated over and over to children in 12,000 Tennessee classrooms culminating in a Henry County celebration of the 250,000th child directly getting the Ollie message. Gov. Phil Bredesen joined the celebration at Lakewood Elementary earlier this week to praise the program and the astounding results since it was initiated by the Tennessee Road Builders Association just over three years ago.

The TRBA effort promotes seatbelt safety, but researchers discovered a niche problem area: many children and adults were not aware of laws regarding booster seats for children under nine who are less than 4’ 9” tall. Thanks to the TRBA, and over 900 online certified volunteers, the message is spreading at a spectacular pace throughout the Volunteer State and the nation.

Why in the world, one might ask, are road builders involved with an Otter and kids? The “why” is fairly simple: The program promotes highway safety and saves lives. This idea actually began when Johnny Coleman of Mid-State Construction Co. in Livingston was installed as the incoming president of TRBA and, Johnny’s wife, Carol, became the president of the TRBA Auxiliary.

Carol wanted to explore the possibility of going beyond the group’s traditional support role.

Carol’s suggestion was the result of very personal experiences. Highway tragedies struck the Colemans when three close family members were killed in traffic accidents. Those losses became the driving force that energized Carol and others to “make a contribution.”

“But, GaGa, booster seats aren’t cool,” commented one of Carol’s five grandchildren when she brought up the plan at a family gathering. That response led to the thought process that ultimately produced “Ollie the Otter,” who is cooler than the other side of the pillow, is entertaining, exciting and is enlightening kids throughout the state.

With the TRBA’s financial investment, the program was boosted immeasurably by the involvement of the Tennessee Tech Business Media Center (where it is now managed), the Tennessee Board of Regents online program to train volunteers and the coordination by Tennessee Technology Centers throughout the state. Strong support from the state departments of transportation, safety, health and education and grants from the Governor’s Highway Safety office have propelled the program to national acclaim.

Reaching the 250,000 mark of children who have either high-fived or hugged Ollie is a great achievement, but the most important thing to the little lady from Livingston who inspired and still spends hours on the program are the stories about lives that have been saved by the Ollie message.

Tragedy led to inspiration that will live on.

Bo Roberts is a Nashville marketing consultant, executive consultant to TRBA’s Tennessee Transportation Development Foundation and managing partner of Roberts Strategies.