Terrill Haigler, aka Ya Fav Trashman

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Known throughout Philadelphia as Ya Fav Trashman, a grassroots pandemic campaign he has turned into a full-time job, Terrill Haigler feels like he’s found his calling.

“We’re on this earth to impact other people and just be a positive staple in our community,” Haigler told Billy Penn.

For his relentless advocacy for COVID protections for the city’s essential workers, and his continuing work helping clean Philly’s streets, Haigler is being honored as the Most Valuable Philadelphian in this year’s Billies awards. The ceremony is set for June 16 via Zoom.

But the 32-year-old’s path from professional dancer to sanitation worker to celebrated champion of neighborhood pride was a twisty one.

The North Philly native trained at Freedom Theatre on North Broad Street, near the childhood home where he now lives with his grandmother. After graduating from the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, he joined the company Danse 4 Nia as its first male member.

Three years later, at age 22, Haigler had his first child. With the responsibility of a daughter came the realization modern dance might not be enough to pay the bills.

“I realized the starving artist thing was not stable enough for children,” he said, “so I ventured into trying to find a W2.”

The search took him to all corners of the city. He rattles off a list of nearly a dozen stops: register clerk at Fresh Grocer; waiter at a “mom and pop” South Philly restaurant; a stint at carpentry school; custodian at HUP; marketing manager at a real estate office; personal trainer and youth program manager at the Salvation Army Kroc Center; stagehand at the Prince Music Theater; stage manager for the Center City Opera.

In 2017, as he bounced around, he applied for a position with Philadelphia’s Department of Streets. “The myth was, ‘Get a city job, work 10 years, and you’ll be able to retire,’” Haigler said, explaining that’s when the pension kicks in.

It took two years to get a call back from city government — “I was No. 782 on the list,” he said — but in October 2019 he was hired.

Credit: Courtesy Terrill Haigler

On Dec. 30, 2019, Haigler began his job as sanitation worker on a daily pickup route in Frankford. Four months later, as COVID lockdowns led to trash pile-ups and the city struggled to find enough PPE to keep workers fully protected, he decided to start making noise.

“I didn’t like the way I was being treated,” he said simply. “The point was to advocate for sanitation workers in Philly.”

Brainstorming with friend Ariana Queenan, who is now his marketing manager, he came up with “Ya Fav Trashman” as a persona. The phrase came from an older woman on his route, who started calling him her “favorite trashman” after he began pulling in her cans for her every morning.

The branding worked, and the campaign caught fire. Within six weeks, he’d raised nearly $10,000 for new PPE. He appeared on Good Morning America and ABC World News Tonight, among dozens of other news shows.

On Instagram, where the @_yafavtrashman account now has more than 25k followers, Haigler not only raised money, he gave people a behind-the-scenes look at life as a sanitation worker.

Not any more. After trying so hard to get a steady job, Haigler is no longer a city employee. He resigned in February to do Ya Fav Trashman full time.

“I always wanted to be my own boss,” Haigler said.

He now uses his social media platform to promote neighborhood cleanups, which he organizes with local elected officials. He partners with other nonprofits to help promote food drives, and to raise awareness of the importance of voting in elections. He also started a GoFundme to buy his own pickup truck for the work.

The connecting thread is to inspire people to care about their communities. “I work in mostly brown and Black neighborhoods to give them resources and all the things to make them feel like someone cares about them,” Haigler said. “To help them thrive — not just survive.”

He also helps take care of his three children, who live with him on weekends, and was able to honor his mother, who died last winter, by registering a star with NASA in her name.

Haigler said he’s thrilled to be the 2021 Billies MVP.

“This is one of the most humbling awards that I’ve received so far as Ya Fav Trashman,” Haigler said. “It is my hope that after receiving this award from Billy Penn, I can continue to grow, and continue to make Philadelphia the greatest city in America, which we all know it already is.”

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...