Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How the kindness of 3 trash collectors humanized a moment of vulnerability

Jeff Balch says he has tried to replicate the example set for him more than 30 years ago.
Jeff Balch
Jeff Balch says he has tried to replicate the example set for him more than 30 years ago.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team. It features stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

In 1992, Jeff Balch's mom died of cancer, at the age of 60. She passed away on a weekend, and that Monday was trash pick-up day.

Balch was at his mom's house, doing some yard work, when the young man who worked as their trash collector came up the driveway. He was wheeling a large trash canister. The man smiled and said, "Hey, how's Ms. Balch doing?"

Balch took a breath. He hadn't yet told a stranger about his mom.

"And I said, 'Well, she was very sick, and I'm afraid she died a couple of days ago,'" Jeff recalled. "And he froze. He stammered, 'I'm so sorry,' and he lowered his eyes and hurried away."

Balch remembers looking down as well, his eyes filling with tears. When he looked up again, he saw that the man was joined by two other trash collectors, and now they were walking towards him, across the yard.

The older man in the group, the crew chief, went up to Balch and asked him if he was Mrs. Balch's son. Balch said yes.

"'Well,' he said, looking left and right at his crew and straight back at me," Balch recalled, "'We just want you to know, your mom was the nicest person on our route.'"

At the time, all Balch could manage was a quick "thank you" before the men walked away.

Today, Balch is older than his mom was when she died. And now, on trash pick-up days, he sometimes finds himself thinking of those three men, who went out of their way to say something kind about his mom.

Balch says he can't recreate his mom's bubbliness as he talks to his own waste collectors, Jose and Josh. But he does try to treat them the way the workers treated him, more than 30 years ago – as a person worthy of their time.

"It's all about perceiving the humanity in everyone we're dealing with," Balch said. "And that was the crew chief's gift to me, was to humanize that moment."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]