Boy with autism and garbage man form a friendship

HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — A small act of kindness turned into an unexpected friendship between a young Holland boy and a woman who drives a garbage truck.

Around the time now-10-year-old Landon Rozeboom started preschool, his family started noticing changes in his behavior.

“When kids would be playing together, he would be off by himself,” Barb Alderink, Landon’s grandmother, said. “When you try to start a conversation, he couldn’t look at you, no eye contact.”

Landon was diagnosed with autism at age 4.

He became fixated on things, a common trait for children who are diagnosed with autism. At first it was trains, then garbage trucks, which has continued for seven years. The fascination surrounded the truck, the sounds and soon-to-be driver.

“When he was really little, we had to take him in the car to follow the garbage truck route,” said Alderink. “So that way he could watch the claw pick up the cans, and he could mimic the sounds and the squeaks.”

Michelle Copen was hired by Chef Container, a garbage collection service in Allegan County, a few years ago to replace the driver on Landon’s route.

“We were following her, she was picking up the cans and stuff and he was so impressed with her,” Alderink said. “She was very efficient, on time, she didn’t tip over the garbage cans.”

Landon has watched Copen since day one on the job, whether it was following behind her truck in a car or riding behind the truck on his bike.

Copen said Landon started off shy, but that changed after a few weeks. Small talk grew into conversations about school, life and family.

Those conversations turned into exchanging gifts from time to time. Landon brought Copen a Valentine, painted her pictures and brought her a dancing hula-girl from Hawaii.

“I asked both boys, ‘Well, what do you want Grammy to bring from Hawaii for you?’” Alderink said. “Levi, his brother, wanted a shirt and all this stuff and Landon said, ‘Well, I’m OK, but can you bring something for Michelle.’”

Copen keeps Landon’s favorite candy, Tootsie Rolls, in her truck for him.

But most importantly, the relationship brought Landon out of his shell and gave him a friend who understands.

“If she had acted differently in any way, this would not have developed, this friendship would have not made it,” Alderink said. “But she was sweet and patient, and gentle with him, gave him enough attention but not too much.”

It gave Copen a friend, too.

“I know the job can become very mundane, not the most glamorous job, but to know that you got a buddy like that, that looks forward to seeing you and you’re a little bit more than the trash man, it makes a difference,” she said.

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