Around town, Rhonda Kitchen is known as the garbage truck driver who stops school zone traffic on Halloween to give out candy. As the driver who toots her horn for three-year-old fans. As the driver who's "showing the boys how it's done."
In the industry, Rhonda Kitchen is also known as the first woman to win the National Waste and Recycling Association's (NWRA) Driver of the Year award.
At the upcoming 2017 WasteExpo event, Kitchen, a driver with Wasatch Front Waste & Recycling District in Midvale, UT, will take the stage with nine male industry colleagues to accept the prestigious award. As the first woman to win Driver of the Year, Kitchen will likely inspire other women to pursue careers as garbage truck drivers.
Waste Dive caught up with Kitchen to discuss the award, her fun-loving relationship with customers and her ability to look on the bright side of all situations.
WASTE DIVE: How did you get started in this line of work?
RHONDA KITCHEN: Well, I think it was kind of in my DNA. My grandpa was a garbage truck driver. My Uncle Mike was one for a time. My Uncle Dick helped run the landfill. My dad was a mechanic for a short time. My husband, father-in-law, cousins, brother-in-laws all work in the garbage industry.
Have you worked in other parts of the industry before or have you always been a driver?
KITCHEN: I've probably been a driver for, well — I worked at a landfill for about 10 years and then I got my CDL Class A over there because they were going to have a RIF. So, I got my Class A to do transfer, truck, and roll off over there. I went to Republic for almost a year and then I came over here to sanitation. All in all together, with permanent and temp time, I've got 20 years with the Wasatch Front and [Salt Lake] County.
What has been your favorite part of your work so far?
KITCHEN: I just like getting out. My little fan clubs, the little kids, you know, they'll run and give you cookies or follow you and I'll let them toot the horn. Then you get the elderly [people] that say, "Oh, it's a girl. Oh, you go girl, you show them boys how it's done."
"I just like getting out. My little fan clubs, the little kids, you know, they'll run and give you cookies or follow you and I'll let them toot the horn."
Driver, Wasatch Front Waste & Recycling District
Great, I was actually going to ask what sort of relationships you've built with your customers along your routes.
KITCHEN: I kind of bounce around. I'm in a group that does everything now. So, I can either be on a route and side load or I can be in area cleanup doing roll offs, or I can do little trailers, the fishbowl. I don't know, I guess I'm just easy to talk to.
You said there are little kids that love to come out and see you?
KITCHEN: Yeah, when I was on a route permanently, I'd had these two little boys. They were, like, under three years old and their mom said, "It doesn't matter if they were eating lunch or sleeping," once they heard the garbage truck coming, they were out there to see me. And they'd follow me for like, four blocks.
Do you have any stories about the most interesting or craziest thing you've picked up along your route?
KITCHEN: Not really. There was one time I went rolling down a street and there was an old devil Halloween costume popping out of the garbage can. And then there was one circle I backed into with these little girls, they had been right around seven or eight years old and were all dancing around and stuff. So, I hurried up and threw my air brakes on and I started dancing in the cab of the truck and tooting my horn and they stopped and looked, and then they started dancing. It was cute.
What was your reaction when you first found out that you won the Driver of the Year award?
KITCHEN: With what I was going through at the time, I didn't want nothing to do with it.
Can I ask more about that?
KITCHEN: I lost my son last month ... It hasn't been easy. It's like I told my boss, I said, "You know, I'm just doing my job just like anybody else." I was kind of dumbfounded. It's like I told her, I said, "I don't know whether to laugh or cry or what to do."
Do you think this award has helped you get through that?
KITCHEN: Yeah. Sometimes it keeps my mind off of my son. You know, getting back to work and dealing with all this. It's a nice little distraction for a minute.
Do you think that your win will inspire other women who want to pursue this career path?
KITCHEN: I hope so. It's like I told my little sister. She goes "Yeah, woman power!" and "Yeah, women's rights!" I told her, "This doesn't have nothing to do with that. That has to do with me going out and busting my own butt. Providing for my family and wanting more," you know?
"[My little sister] goes 'Yeah, woman power!' and 'Yeah, woman's rights!' I told her, 'This doesn't have nothing to do with that. This has to do with me going out and busting my own butt. Providing for my family and wanting more,' you know?"
Driver, Wasatch Front Waste & Recycling District
Do you feel like you've struggled as a woman in the position that [you're in] in the industry?
KITCHEN: No, I haven't struggled. There might have been a time or two where I had to, you know — certain things are a little heavy when you're with that roll off can to try and shift it around so it doesn't fall out but other than that, it's relatively a pretty easy job ... We have two rear loaders that we use for area cleanup or leaf bags that we have to throw in the back. But other than that, everything's pretty much all automated. The side loads, they're all CNG. The front loads are CNG. They're all really easy to operate.
Do you have any advice for other women who want to do what you do but may be intimidated by the work?
KITCHEN: Just do it. Don't pay attention to anybody else. That's what you want to do, go out and do it. There's a lot of men out there that kind of, I don't know how to word it, are snooty or whatever, "Aw, a girl!" But once you get out there and start working, a lot of them are like, "Wow, she can actually work." ... If it's something that you want to do, go out and do it. It's nice getting out and about and doing different things and interacting with the public.