In March 2020, Emma Grace Johnson, now 6 years old, was unable to leave her home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, watching Amwaste garbage trucks come up and down her street.
Emma Grace loves trucks and vehicles, said her mother, Laura Johnson.
In addition to being bogged down at home, the Johnsons had been going through a rough time with Laura’s father being sent home from the hospital the day before the UAB hospital reported the first COVID-19 patient. Her father was terminally ill and it took a heavy toll on Emma Grace, who the Johnsons adopted from Hungary when she was 3 years old. Emma Grace has traumatic needs due to her time in a Hungarian orphanage.
“There is a lot more grief than you would expect from a typical 5 or 6 year old,” said Laura Johnson.
When Amwaste driver Elbert Berry started interacting with Emma Grace as he walked down her street, it made her the day, her mother said. Berry soon met Johnson and the two became best friends.
“We were slowly starting to connect,” said Berry.
The timing couldn’t have been better after the loss of Emma Grace’s grandfather, Johnson said.
“In those moments she would forget all of that,” said Johnson. âHer face would just light up. The opportunity to see her so happy, even just for these moments, was really something special. “
Little did Berry know that the child he started waving last year had just lost her grandfather or that she was struggling with behavior problems because she was not being held at the orphanage. Little did he know that before she was six years old she had eight operations due to various problems. He had no way of knowing when she was born, she weighed less than 1.5 kilos and had to spend four months in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“He just saw a little girl and took the time to be nice to her,” said Johnson. “I’m grateful for that.”
Berry said after months of spending and seeing time with Emma Grace and her mother, they have become like family.
“She means the world,” said Berry. “She only sees good things.”
Berry said he interacts with multiple children on his route and sees all of his clients as family, but Emma Grace is special. “She’s the right one,” he said.
Emma Grace’s hug makes Berry’s day much better go by, he said. âI need it,â he said.
In a world and culture so often divided, Berry, who is black, said Emma Grace, who is white, taught him to love others, even if they look different from you.
“She showed me how to love everyone,” said Berry. “This is something very special. She doesn’t look at my color. “
On weekends when he’s not working, Berry said he plans to take time to get home to the Johnsons and play with Emma Grace.
But on days when she has to go to school and doesn’t see him, he has made sure that he is always with her. Berry recently gave Emma Grace a pendant, a gift with a special message and picture.
Emma Grace loves making berry cards and has even made cupcakes. On a certain day she made him a card with her picture on it. Without knowing it, it was his birthday.
Berry took the same photo and put it in a tag that said, âYou’re the best part of my day!â Now Emma Grace can take a photo of her friend anywhere with her.
“He was so proud to make her smile,” said Johnson.
Johnson said Berry was proud of his job and was very nice.
“He did it [giving her the necklace] just because he’s good, “said Johnson. “We would do anything for Mr. Berry.”
While Emma Grace is special, Johnson said she knew he would do it for anyone.
“He’s the kindhearted person who would do for any child what he did for them,” said Johnson. “If it made her smile, he would.”
Berry said he wants to see Emma Grace grow up and get bigger and stronger and hopes their families can get together over the vacation. He said he wanted to continue to be a “true friend” to the little girl who waved to him in his garbage truck. “I will never leave her.”