Wendy the Waste Truck, named in tribute to Homewood Disposal founder Wendell Yonker, regularly turns up in local parades, including in Homewood, above, and helps with recycling education. (Provided photo/Homewood Disposal)
Business, Feature

Homewood Disposal supports community, employees

Kyle Yonker has spent most of his life around garbage. As has his father, Tom, and his grandfather, Wendell.

They are, after all, the family behind Homewood Disposal.

“I grew up here on the back of a garbage truck since I was 16 or 17, sweeping floors,” Kyle said. “There’s even pictures of me coming in at 8 or 9 to sweep and clean up the transfer station.”

Wendy the Waste Truck, named in tribute to Homewood Disposal founder Wendell Yonker, regularly turns up in local parades, including in Homewood, above, and helps with recycling education. (Provided photo/Homewood Disposal)
Wendy the Waste Truck, named in tribute to Homewood Disposal founder Wendell Yonker, regularly turns up in local parades, including in Homewood, above, and helps with recycling education. (Provided photo/Homewood Disposal)

Kyle’s more official entry into the garbage industry came right after college. Now one of Homewood Disposal’s owners, he has been at the company’s head office since 2007. And he has seen the business change, from rear-load trucks with helpers that serviced 600-700 homes a day to trucks with automated arms helping haulers do up to 1,200 stops a day.

Through it all, Kyle and the Yonkers before him have worked to maintain a family feel at the company. It’s a culture that has been created collectively by not only the Yonkers but also multiple generations of families who have been employed by Homewood Disposal.

“They obviously feel it’s a good enough place to recommend their family working there, as well,” Kyle said. “It’s not just the culture that my grandpa and dad started, but it’s the culture that everybody who works here has perpetuated. They want to take care of their customers. … They want to treat the people they work with well.”

In defining Homewood Disposal’s core values, Kyle looked at the correspondences of his father, senior managers and more to find out what mattered to them over the years. Stewardship, community, family and service emerged as the core values emphasized over time at the company, connecting today’s decisions to those of the past. And the process helped him connect to the history of not only the company but also his family — and that of Homewood Disposal’s employees and their families.

“It’s neat and rewarding to connect today to 50-60 years ago,” he said. “The same concepts my grandpa had years and years ago, we’re still trying to utilize today. … You feel connected and like you’re doing something bigger than just a company, because you’re having an impact on not just the employees who work here, but on their families, because decisions we make affect all the other people who rely on this company.”

Founding grandfather

In January, Wendell Yonker celebrated his 100th birthday, and Homewood Disposal has been around for nearly 70 of those years. But once upon a time, Wendell had more pressing concerns than hauling garbage.

Wendell Yonker, the founder of Homewood Disposal, stands next to one of the trucks from the days when the company was known as Homewood Scavenger. (Provided photo/Homewood Disposal)
Wendell Yonker, the founder of Homewood Disposal, stands next to one of the
trucks from the days when the company was known as Homewood Scavenger.
(Provided photo/Homewood Disposal)

Wendell served as a radioman for the United States Navy during World War II on the SS William A. Coulter in the Pacific. He and his ship even survived a kamikaze attack near the Philippines, according to a Veterans Day post from Homewood Disposal.

After he returned from the war, Wendell became a contractor, building houses.

“He did that for many years and decided he wanted a change,” Kyle said.

He had a brother-in-law in the disposal business who recommended it. So, Wendell seized an opportunity to buy a small company — two or three trucks — that wasn’t doing so well in 1956.

He ran the company — primarily covering the Homewood-Flossmoor area, then called Homewood Scavenger and with its first office behind a men’s clothing store on Dixie Highway — by himself until Tom graduated college and started working with him.

In the decades since the family took ownership, Homewood Disposal has grown exponentially, providing residential, commercial and industrial waste services. In the 1980s and ’90s in particular, it grew significantly with a number of companies such as NuWay Disposal and Tinley Park Disposal joining the team.

The ’90s also saw the company add curbside recycling in Homewood, which became a single-stream recycling across more neighborhoods in the 2000s, with facilities upgraded several times to handle more recyclables with greater efficiency.

A few years ago, Homewood Disposal introduced Wendy the Waste Truck — a mascot that appears in parades, coloring books and educational efforts. It also serves as recognition for Wendell, the man who laid the foundation for what Homewood Disposal has become, by using his nickname — though, not everyone realizes it.

“It’s worked out well for us,” Kyle said of the mascot. “The only problem is people always think Wendy the Waste Truck’s a girl.”

Good haul(ers)

Wendy is one of a number of efforts Homewood Disposal makes to participate in the communities it serves. The company’s motto notes it strives to provide “the kind of service others only promise,” but among its values is also an aim to be good stewards of the earth and its resources.

To that end, Homewood Disposal leads educational efforts to teach children about recycling. Kyle said the goal is to make sure that as those children grow up to become consumers, they can make a bigger impact on the recycling industry.

In 2016, Homewood Disposal opened a compressed natural gas station on its Homewood campus. More than 100 of its trucks now run on CNG, which Homewood Disposal touts helps to reduce air pollution.

“It’s very easy for the garbage business to be considered dirty and gross — something you don’t want to talk about because it’s the garbage business,” Kyle said. “But there’s a lot more to it. We’re recycling. We’re using natural gas. We are participating in these community events. We’re trying to help protect the communities and participate, as well.”

Kyle, who grew up in Orland Park, said many of Homewood Disposal’s employees live in towns in the company’s service area. They take part in the type of community events where Wendy appears. Their neighbors are their customers. So, the company takes extra pride in having kept these neighborhoods clean for decades.

“We’re a part of the community,” Kyle explained. “We’re driving up and down the streets every day. We want our customers to recognize our trucks and recognize us and understand that we’re trying to make the community better.”

Long-hauler

Bill Rankin, 66, retired from Homewood Disposal in March after 45 years with the company under multiple generations of the Yonkers.

Rankin started his career in the disposal industry with another company. He was drawn to the profession at a time when haulers were still physically tossing garbage into the rear-loaders, before the advent of the automated arms.

“I like the outdoors,” Rankin said. “I used to think it was great that you got to go to work every day and get a nice workout and got a paycheck besides.”

His best friend’s uncle worked for Homewood Disposal and gave Rankin a heads up when a spot opened. He applied, got the job and never left.

“I heard they treated their employees right, so I came here,” Rankin said. “I think the reason I’ve been here so long is it’s like a big family. It’s family-oriented. They care about you. You’re not just a number like you are to other places. Mr. Yonker, I couldn’t ask for a nicer person. … I like the people I work with. I understand our business. When you work for good people, it just makes it that much better.”

Over more than four decades, Rankin did residential routes, commercial pickup, roll-off dumpsters, semi roll-off, dump work and transfer work.

“I’ve done just about everything you can do here,” Rankin said.

In Rankin’s early days at the company, Homewood Disposal used to do a lot of walk-in services — where haulers would walk up to a house or garage to get the garbage and walk it back out. Rankin said some people received that service twice a week.

“That’s unheard of, basically, today,” Rankin said. “Back when I started, it was common for a lot of people to have that kind of service.”

Another notable change: When he started, Rankin said Homewood Disposal had just 16 employees. Today, they have more than 300 — reflecting the growth of the company.

“It’s grown dramatically,” Rankin said. “There’s no comparison from when I first started to what it is today.”

Except, of course, that family feeling that has endured. Rankin noted he worked alongside “lots” of people who stayed with Homewood Disposal for decades. He never even thought about leaving the company sooner or choosing another profession.

But he did get to what he considered a good age to retire — still physically fit and choosing to spend more time with his grandchildren (Some golf and travel are also on the docket).

“I’ve been able to do that, so I’m blessed,” Rankin said.

Family Tree

When Homewood Disposal was founded in the 1950s, the village was not nearly as connected to Chicago as it is now and was considered to be “out of the way,” Kyle explained. But it provided solid ground to plant the seeds for what the company would one day become.

“This is where all the service was,” Kyle said. “This is where the service has always been. They wanted to stay close to where their routes are. This is where they’ve always had their customers.”

And the south suburbs — from the company’s Homewood origins to an East Hazel Crest transfer station and back again to Homewood with the opening of the corporate headquarters in 2005 — have remained home. With Homewood Disposal’s roots in service to Homewood and Flossmoor firmly planted, the company has branched out over the years to an area that now includes more than 80 communities in the Chicagoland area and Northwest Indiana.

So what comes next? There is another generation of Yonkers after Kyle and his sister, Jenny. But whether Homewood Disposal is destined for a fourth generation at the helm ultimately will be up to them.

“I want to give them the option,” Kyle said. “I don’t want to force my kids to do something they don’t want to do, but at the same time I want to do everything in my power to make this business where, if they choose to, they can run this for the next generation or the next couple.”

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