Every year, Bell employee C.J. Novak takes a road trip with his daughters – as a way to honor the wife and mother they lost to brain cancer years ago. On a recent trip, C.J.’s RV broke down. When he got to the repair shop, C.J. found the mechanic does so much more than fix vehicles – he also restores hope.
C.J. Novak, IT User Provisioning Supervisor
Steve Wallace of Wallace Auto Care
When C.J.’s second child, Gloria, was born, he found out his wife, Andrea, had a brain tumor, and she only had 2 years left to live.
What Andrea wanted to do most while she still could was show her daughters pandas. So C.J. got a list of every zoo in the country, found out which had pandas and made a list of the ones they wanted to visit.
“I took my girls and my wife to every zoo starting with number one working our way down,” C.J. notes.
At the first zoo, the pandas weren’t on display. At the second, they were sick. And at the third, the exhibit was closed. Seeing how disheartened her mom was, Elly – their first-born, who was 3½ years old at the time – pointed out a face painter and offered to be her mom’s panda.
“We got her face painted right then and there, and from then on we said, ‘If we go to zoos and there are no pandas, you’re going to be the pandas,’” C.J. explains.
He’s called his daughters “the pandas” ever since.
Though they continued to visit zoos, Andrea never did get to see pandas with her daughters. After her death, C.J. took his “pandas” to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where they finally saw pandas for the first time.
Now, every July for their birthdays (which are just 2 days apart), they take a few weeks off and road trip wherever “the pandas” want to go.
In 2021, one of them wanted a lobster roll and the other wanted to see the Gulf of Mexico, so they packed up their RV and headed for Maine – with plans to stop by Florida after.
“The trip itself seems ludicrous if you think about it,” C.J. acknowledges. “You’re driving from North Dakota to Maine and then from Maine to Florida, and we do all this in just a few weeks. But the driving is the thing we do as a family.”
Late at night on July 3, it was storming as C.J. drove through Albany, N.Y., and his RV had a major mechanical failure. He made it to Wallace Auto Care, which was closed, but he couldn’t risk driving farther without permanently damaging the vehicle.
“This building is extremely small, and I mean two-car-family-garage small, but we have no choice,” C.J. recalls.
They camped out in the RV in the auto shop’s parking lot that night and, because of the July 4th holiday, all the next day. When the shop opened July 5, the Novaks met Steve Wallace.
“He comes out to us very curious because the entire front side of his building is the same size as our RV, which is parked, blocking his building,” C.J. says. “He’d never worked on an RV before and didn’t know anybody who’d worked on an RV like ours, but he said he’d look at it and get us back on the road.”
Over the next 5 days as Steve worked on the RV, C.J. and his daughters stayed at a nearby hotel. They spent a lot of time hanging out in Steve’s lobby, talking to his customers, and they learned not only how reliable Steve is, but also how giving.
“One woman explained that one time she needed an oil change and had a check-engine light on, and she didn’t have money. But he went ahead and got her back on the road and didn’t charge her a penny for it,” C.J. notes. “I asked him why he takes care of people the way he does, and he said it was because there was a point in his life when he ran into hard times and somebody gave him a chance.”
In repairing the RV, Steve ended up having to make specialty tools to get the job done. But it was more than his exceptional customer service that stuck with C.J. and his daughters. He also shared words of wisdom along the way.
“When I heard him say, ‘A mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn something from it,’ that really resonated. It stuck with me as we drove away, and it stuck with my children as they said, ‘Oh this isn’t a mistake. I’m going to learn something from this,’” C.J. remarks.
The Novak family ended up having to cut their trip short. The next year when C.J. asked his “pandas” what they wanted to do, they wanted to visit Steve in Albany.
“He made that much of an impact on them and that much of an impact on me, and I see that he makes that much of an impact on everybody around him,” C.J. comments. “That’s a big deal.”
Because of the difference Steve makes for others, C.J. decided to give $2,000 of his Pay It Forward funds to Steve.
“If Steve is paying it forward, the least we can do is help him pay it forward,” C.J. notes.
July 5, 2022, they pulled up to Wallace Auto Care and saw Steve’s jaw drop.
“I explained to him that he left this imprint on myself and on my girls that isn’t going away,” C.J. says. “I told him that even if it doesn’t seem like people notice or care what you’re doing, it means something to people like us.”
When C.J. handed Steve the check, his jaw again dropped, and his eyes filled with tears.
“He says, ‘This means more than you know,’” C.J. remarks. “It’s difficult to put into words the feeling that comes from knowing your workplace truly cares about you and other people to the extent where they say, ‘Go out and do good things on our dime.’ It really shows how community-oriented Bell is with the Pay It Forward program.”Through the Pay It Forward program, Bell gives employees money each year to donate to people in need and causes they care about.