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On trash pickup day, a man was reminded of the humanity in everyone

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Time now for "My Unsung Hero," our series from the team at Hidden Brain. "My Unsung Hero" tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else. And today's story comes from Jeff Balch. In 1992, over a weekend, Balch's mother died. And the following Monday was a trash pickup day.

JEFF BALCH: I was out front doing some yard work. And a young fellow came up the driveway, wheeling a big barrel. I remember he was younger than I. But he grinned, and he said, hey. How's Ms. Balch doing? And I hadn't yet had to tell a stranger. I took a breath. And I said, well, she was very sick, and I'm afraid she died a couple of days ago. And he froze. He stammered, oh, I'm so sorry. And he lowered his eyes and hurried away. I was looking down, too, pretty teary.

And when I looked up again, I blinked to see three people coming across our yard. There was a middle-aged man flanked by the young fellow and another young guy. And the older man walked up to me and said, are you Mrs. Balch's son? And we shook, and I said yes. Well, he said, looking left and right at his crew and straight back at me, we just want you to know your mom was the nicest person on our route. And all I could manage was a quick thank you. And they walked away.

And I'm older now than mom got to be. And I was flashing back to this story last Monday, which is our own trash pickup day. I can't emulate mom's bubbliness as I talk to our collectors, Jose and Josh. But I do see them, and I try to see them the way the crew chief saw me 30-plus years ago and the way mom saw him and his crew as people worth taking some time for. It's all about perceiving the humanity in everyone we're dealing with. And that was the crew chief's gift to me - was to humanize that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: Jeff Balch lives in Evanston, Ill. You can find more stories like this on the "My Unsung Hero" podcast. And to share the story of your unsung hero, visit myunsunghero.org for instructions on how to send a voice memo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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