Fateful garbage route forms unbreakable bond

This piece is presented by Novak Sanitary Service.

Duff Rouillard was driving his Novak Sanitary Service garbage truck around a Sioux Falls cul-de-sac one morning when it happened.

“Here comes this kid, flying around the truck,” said Duff, who had recently started working at Novak.

The boy’s mother came running out behind him.

Ben Graff and Duff Rouillard

“He never comes out of the house,” she told Duff.

“He’s seen your truck and kind of gravitated toward it.”

The boy was Ben Graff, then 13, nonverbal with pervasive development delays.

His mother, Debbie, was experiencing their hardest year yet.

“Ben went through a very difficult time transitioning through puberty,” she said. “Being nonverbal, he had a lot of things going against him. He started to get very frustrated. He was having a lot of health issues – surgery after surgery.”

The struggle had become so bad, Ben refused to leave the house.

Until the Novak truck arrived.

“He has a fixation with garbage,” Debbie explained. “It’s something he can physically do. He can take the garbage out. He does it at home.”

From the first day Duff met Ben, something special was sparked.

“After that day, I just said, ‘Hey, if he wants to come out and help when I’m here, let him go. Let him come out,’ ” Duff said.

Shortly after that, Duff’s truck pulled up, but Ben, upset, stood inside his door.

“And Duff came to the door and goes, ‘C’mon, buddy, come help me.’ And he went outside,” Debbie said. “I just watched in awe. Duff automatically had a connection. He was very patient. And once the friendship was brought together, there was a bond.”

Duff began sending Ben’s parents a message when the truck was approaching to make sure the boy was ready to help.

“I showed him how to grab one of our handles to dump the truck,” Duff said.

Debbie thought this might go on for a few weeks.

It has lasted for more than a decade.

Ben, outfitted in an honorary Novak shirt, helps dump not just his household’s garbage but the neighbors’ as well. By the morning before pickup day, he has already brought his own dumpster to the driveway.

“When I put that shirt on Thursday, it doesn’t go off all day,” Debbie said. “He knows he did something special. People see him and talk to him about his job. One of our neighbors switched to Novak because she wanted Ben to do it.”

Duff’s job at Novak doesn’t put him on the route as much anymore, but Ben continues to help the Novak crews weekly.

The Graff and Rouillard families also have become friends. They have dinner together and exchange Christmas presents. Duff has taken Ben to the mall to see Santa, downtown to see trains and for a ride on the trolley.

“He’ll say ‘Duff’ with an ‘f’ sound. He knows some sign language. He’ll tap his wrist for work,” Duff said. “He has some picture books that have pictures of me and my family, and we kind of use that communicate.”

In 2011, Duff was honored with a Caregiver of the Year award from the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“I’m just so grateful for him and so grateful he cares,” Debbie said. “And Ben has a friend. Duff is one of his best friends. They laugh and have their own little language going on.”

While Ben has endured 19 surgeries, he’s doing well, his mom said.

“He’s maturing. He’s getting better. He went through a really tough year, and that was the year Duff came into our lives,” she said, calling him a “hidden hero.”

“Duff doesn’t see the disability. He and his wife are really good parents, really good people, and Duff sets an example every day. He’s just really changed our lives by going outside one day and grabbing Ben’s hand and saying ‘Let’s do this.’ It’s like another family for him, all through one garbage truck that came to our house one day and changed his life.”

Fateful garbage route forms unbreakable bond

Duff Rouillard was driving his Novak Sanitary Service garbage truck around a Sioux Falls cul-de-sac one morning when it happened. A boy came running toward his truck, and several lives changed forever.

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