Suburban garbage collector is an ‘Everyday Hero’

The feel-good video about the unsung dedication of a Winnetka garbage collector is bringing out the good will of strangers.

It all started when Winnetka resident Julie Peterson created a video about her garbage man, Ron Turner, who, despite his share of adversities, cheerfully performs a job he knows many people wouldn’t touch. The video was posted on YouTube.

“On the face of it, he has so much to complain about, and yet I have never heard him complain,” said Peterson, a journalist and filmmaker who launched a not-for-profit company to tell stories of hope.

“Ron’s story, and the reception to it, has absolutely warmed my heart,” Peterson said.

The Island Lake resident’s perennial optimism — despite a back-breaking job, a long work commute and caring for parents who died of cancer — comes through in the short documentary. The video shows Turner collecting refuse along his route, explaining his philosophy on camera and provides a look at the youth volunteer work he does in his free time.

“Every day when I get up, I thank God for another day to breathe,” said Turner, 54, who will mark his 32nd year as a Winnetka garbage collector in February. “My mother told me years ago that you might be having a bad day, but someone may be having a worse day than you are, so always think positive.”

When asked about his own life dreams on camera, Turner mentioned that he’d like to visit Germany when he retires, based on friends’ recommendation.

“I have never been overseas or to any other country,” he added.

Little did Peterson know her video would touch a chord with a Libertyville family that decided to make Turner’s wish of traveling to Germany a reality using accumulated airline miles from credit card purchases.

When Peterson learned about the gesture from someone who’d never met her refuse collector, she created a second video about the ‘wonderful life’ moment in the northern suburbs, a reference to the Christmas movie classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Donor Tony Perry said he was inspired by the story of a seemingly ordinary person making a huge difference in the lives of others.

“They are not the owner of a company. They are not a politician. They are not an NBA player. They are just a great person,” said Perry, a custom home builder whose family-owned firm is based in Wilmette. “So what a great story is that? That anyone can make a difference in so many people’s lives.”

A GoFundMe page was launched Dec. 21 by Perry and his family to raise funds to make Turner’s trip truly memorable. As of Tuesday morning, $510 of the $2,500 goal had been raised.

“We figured if we started a GoFundMe page, someone will pay for a hotel. Someone will pay for a meal or a tour and we’ll create a whole big package for him,” said Anthony Perry, whose father Tony and stepmother Dee are behind the project. “We figured we will create a virtuous circle of people paying it forward, and then everyone will jump on the bandwagon and it will become bigger than one little act.”

Winnetka’s public works director, Steve Saunders, said Turner is an asset to the department, which includes six full-time refuse collectors.

“Ron loves his job, he loves serving his customers on his routes and he is excited to come to work every day,” said Saunders. “The video portrays who Ron really is, a warm and super-caring person and hard worker.”

In the original video, one Winnetka resident, Louise Holland, shared an example of how Turner goes above and beyond to help customers.

“He would ring the doorbell and say, ‘Mrs. Holland, where are your cans?'” she said, adding her response might be, “Oh, I forgot today.”

Saunders said he isn’t surprised by the outpouring of good will engendered by the video.

“People in this area and this community are incredibly generous,” said Saunders. “Ron being who he is, it doesn’t surprise me.”

Since the first video was posted several weeks ago, Turner has received lots of attention as he goes about his job. “I have always kept a low profile,” said Turner. “I was just totally wowed by the whole thing.”

The younger Perry hopes the campaign to help the refuse collector will inspire others to consider how they might brighten someone’s holiday season.

“Who is an everyday hero in your life that deserves a little recognition or thank you around the holidays?” the younger Perry said. “It wouldn’t cost you much but, man, it would make their day.”