Column: A recycling crew, a 6-year-old boy and a friendship that reminds us how much of humanity is good

Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune

When Henriks Lizenbergs’ kindergarten class moved to remote learning last spring, Tuesdays quickly became his favorite day of the week.

The garbage, recycling and composting crews all show up in his Evanston neighborhood on Tuesdays, which means a whole lot of truck action. For a 6-year-old boy who holds trucks near and dear to his heart, a front-row seat to that weekly ritual was a delight.

“Tuesdays became the day we live for,” said Annie Lizenbergs, Henriks’ mom.

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After a couple of weeks of watching the City of Evanston crews at work, Henriks started to run outside and help.

“He started pulling our cans out for the guys,” Annie Lizenbergs said. “Then that evolved to where he didn’t just do our house or our cul-de-sac, he was going down the street and pulling all the cans out for them. Then he would get done with our street and sprint to the other cul-de-sac and meet the truck over there.”

Henriks continued his routine over the summer months, watching and listening for the trucks and leaping into action when it was time.

“Sometimes the guys would give him a water or a Gatorade,” Annie Lizenbergs said. “They were just so, so kind.”

A friendship quickly sprung up between Henriks and the recycling collectors, in particular. The men would stop and chat with Henriks. Henriks would tell them about his day.

“My staff kept coming to me and telling me about this young man,” said Kevin Johnson, recycling and environmental maintenance supervisor for the City of Evanston. “Every Tuesday, like clockwork, he’s there to run the route with them. In a tough year like 2020, it was nice to know somebody was thinking about us. It was kind of a joy and a thrill for my staff.”

Johnson and his team participate in an annual event for Evanston-area Cub Scouts where they let the kids climb inside the trucks and honk the horns and work the levers. He’s familiar with youthful affection for giant trucks.

But Henriks took it to a new level.

“We thought we should give him something to say thank you and kind of make his day,” Johnson said.

On Oct. 13, a Tuesday, Henriks sat watch for the trucks. One truck pulled up. Then a second truck pulled up. Four more trucks pulled up, for a total of six trucks. All in front of Henriks’ house.

“There was 10 guys,” he recounted with enthusiasm.

“And what did they give you?” his mom nudged him.

“They were giving me fist bumps,” he said.

They didn’t stop at fist bumps. The group of men gathered around a curious Henriks and presented him with a safety vest and hard hat, just like they wear. Then they presented him with an award.

“We give out these service awards periodically for staff who’ve done a good job,” Johnson said. “It has a picture of a recycling truck and our department name and it says ‘Employee Recognition Award.’”

Henriks said it made him feel like he was part of the team. It also made him feel, he said, like their friend.

“My husband talked to Kevin Johnson and he told my husband, ‘You know, he’s been such a bright spot in the course of a lot of hard weeks,’” Annie Lizenbergs said. “And we just said, ‘You don’t understand. We are so grateful for what you’ve brought to his life.’”

Henriks wrote a thank-you note to the crew and included a photo that his mom snapped of the group presenting him his award and his uniform.

And life moved on, with Tuesdays remaining a bright spot in Henriks’ weeks.

He’s in first grade now, and he still learns remotely from home five days a week.

“On Mondays I only have one Zoom,” he told me. “Then I can catch up on some work.”

On Tuesdays, he e-learns with his window open. He keeps his hard hat and vest handy.

“So I can make sure if I can hear them, I can make sure I get ready,” he said.

Last Tuesday, the Lizenbergs were gone on recycling day. When they arrived back home, there was a package on their front steps. Inside was a candle with the photo of Henriks and the recycling crew on the front of it.

“On the back it said, ‘We’re not just a team because we work together. We’re a team because we respect, trust and care for each other. Teamwork makes the dream work,’” Annie Lizenbergs said. “I turned it over and it was from the recycling team. I couldn’t even believe it. The kindness continues.”

“He keeps our staff’s spirits up,” Johnson said. “We don’t always get that many thank-you’s.”

Allow me to add mine to the one from Henriks and his family:

Thank you for recognizing the magic and beauty of a kid’s respect and affection. Thank you for offering him that same respect and affection in return. Thank you for reminding all of us, especially right now, how a small gesture can remind us how connected we are, how simple it is to choose kindness and how much of humanity is good.

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hstevens@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13