Tales From Elementary School - 5th Grader Ryan Hickman Gets a Jump on His Dreams - Jen Hatmaker

Tales From Elementary School – 5th Grader Ryan Hickman Gets a Jump on His Dreams

Episode 04

We’re still in full swing with our back to school series, and we’ve saved the best of our academic years for last – Elementary School. If you’ve ever been tempted to lose faith in this upcoming crop of youngsters, we’re here to bear witness that these kids are #killingit. Leading the pack are prodigies like 5th Grader Ryan Hickman, who started his own recycling business when he was just three years old (yes, 3!). Ryan’s now 10, and his business is thriving, and his goal, by the time he is the ripe old age of 12, is to recycle 1 million bottles and cans. He talks about his business, and how he raises money for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Orange County (which he’s shared about in numerous TV news stories and on The Ellen Show). Ryan also gives us a peek into what elementary school kids are into right now (besides being business magnates), including challenging Jen to a rousing game of his favorite card game, “War.”

Episode Transcript

Narrator:  Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.

Jen:   Hey, guys. Jen Hatmaker is here, your host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show. Welcome to the fun, fun, fun elementary episode of the back to school series. I’m loving this series. Okay. Get ready to be delighted because today’s guest is Ryan Hickman. So Ryan is an elementary school student. He lives in Orange County, California. And he’s the president of Ryan’s Recycling Company, which he started when he was, wait for it, three years old. I’m not making that up, guys. He was three and a half. So today, Ryan has customers all over Orange County and he spends part of every single week sorting through cans and bottles from his customers and getting them ready to take to the recycle center. And wait till you hear him. He has this passion for recycling and helping animals and the environment that is infectious. You are going to fall in love.

I’m not the only one who has and who thinks so. Ryan’s story has inspired millions of people. He was on Ellen. He won the CNN Young Wonder Award in 2017. He has met the coolest people, which we’ll talk about. And he is showing no signs of slowing up. I am just delighted to have such an outstanding kid on the show. And so we’re going to talk about ordinary, elementary stuff too. We’re going to kind of get into the weeds of elementary school, just like we’ve done for middle and high school and college, and then we’re going to funnel into Ryan’s very specific gifts and his young entrepreneurial environmental heart. It’s so exciting to hear. It’s just going to put a lot of hope in your heart and you’re going to be like, “You know what? The kids are okay. Look at this generation coming up.” They’re going to wow us, you guys. I’m telling you, they’re going to wow us.

I am thrilled that Ryan is representing the elementary crew for us, such an extraordinary kid doing extraordinary things. You are going to love him, so I’m so pleased to share my adorable conversation with elementary school kid and recycling extraordinaire, Ryan Hickman.

View More

Jen: Well, Ryan, I am super honored to have you on the For the Love Podcast. Thanks for saying yes.

Ryan: Welcome.

Jen: Yes, we are lucky. We’re the lucky ones to have you today. So let me start here. I’ve told my listeners a little bit about you, but I’d like to hear it from you. Can you tell us a little bit about you? What grade are you in? What school are you at? Where do you live? What’s your favorite subjects in school?

Ryan: Well, I’m in fifth grade. My school is Ambuehl Elementary School. I live in San Juan Capistrano, and my favorite subject is probably math, but right now, in fifth grade, it’s really cool because we get to code robots, and we get to bring our iPads to school and we get to code it on them.

Jen: How do you know how to do that? You’re learning?

Ryan: I don’t know. I just found out.

Jen: Well, that’s exciting. Do you get to just kind of create your own robot? You get to put your creative ideas onto it?

Ryan: No, it’s like the robot comes, like, it is in a box.

Jen: I see.

Ryan: My teacher, she just found one in the cabinet I guess, and she’s trying to do an update on it. The robot’s there and you can put on attachments. There was this keyboard thing and a xylophone that it could play. There’s certain attachments you could hook onto it, grabbers. It’s cool.

Jen: Oh, that’s cool. Oh, that’s super cool. Oh, you’re going to love that.

Ryan: Right now we’re just playing around with it.

Jen: Well, you know what? Forget math when you can do robots. Right?

Ryan: Yeah, I know.

Jen: Totally. So let me ask you this question, Ryan. If I asked either your mom or dad or your friends to describe you, what do you think they’d say about you? What would they say? “Ryan’s like this…”

Ryan: I think they would say that I’m a good friend. As my friends, I think they would say that I’m a good friend, what I’m doing is great, and my parents will probably say that I’m a good kid. They love what I’m doing and they want to support me.

Jen: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what they would say. That’s nice. If that’s what people ever said about me, I’d be really happy about that.

Let me ask you this, because you really just started school, didn’t you? What have you liked most about going back to school this year? What’s cool about fifth grade that maybe you didn’t get to experience in fourth?

Ryan: The thing that I’m most looking forward to is probably seeing my best friend Parker. He moved to Spain for three years for his dad’s work and he came back this summer and I finally got to see him in school.

Jen: Oh, that’s awesome. Does he go to your school?

Ryan: Yeah, he’s in my class.

Jen: Oh, that’s so nice. Plus, you and Parker are the oldest kids in school, right? You’re in the top grade in elementary, right?

Ryan: Yep.

Jen: Feels kind of cool to be the oldest one in school. There’s some responsibility to it. All the other kids in school are looking up to you. I remember thinking I was pretty hot stuff when I was your age. Did you get to do everything you wanted to over the summer? What’d you do this summer that was great? What was your favorite thing?

Ryan: My favorite thing this summer is my mom and dad have to work so I go to my grandma’s, and she has lots of fun neighbors. She has five neighbors I could play with, and when one’s out of town, I could go to the other. And I was looking, or [what] I was hoping to do this summer was go to Hawaii, but I didn’t.

Jen: Oh. Maybe next year.

Ryan: But I’m probably going to be doing it maybe next year or during school year for work. But I hope I do.

Jen: Oh, I hope you do too. I’ve been to Hawaii one time and it is amazing, and I’m telling you right now that you would love it. But you’re so lucky to have your grandma too. That is so great that that’s where you get to go in the summer. That’s fantastic.

Ryan: And every Tuesday she picks me up from school. It’s early out on Tuesdays. We get into school the same time. It’s just we get out at 12:50 instead of 2:05. Since my parents still have to work, my grandma picks me up, and when my mom’s off of work, she comes home, we eat dinner. Then my grandma and grandpa hangs out till about 7:00-ish. Then they leave.

Jen: Well, I’m telling you, if I was you, Tuesdays would be my favorite day. That’s for darn sure.

Ryan: And I’ll have extra time to do my homework with them.

Jen: Yes, it’s true. Because sometimes by the time you get home from school and have your snack and do all that, and then you do your homework and dinner, the day’s gone. Right? Days go fast.

Ryan: Yeah. Usually I have to go to my dad’s office, but on Tuesdays all I have to do is just go home, have a quick snack for about 10 minutes and then do my homework. And in between every two assignments, I get a five minute break.

Jen: I love that. That’s what I want to do with my work.

Ryan: Like today, since it’s Wednesday, today’s our trash day and I usually do on my breaks, take out the trash cans, get the mail, that type of thing.

Jen: We’re about to start talking about that. Let me ask you this question first though. So you’re in fifth grade. You’ve been in elementary school now for several years. I wonder if there’s anything that you find tricky or challenging, maybe even a little bit difficult either in school right now or maybe just in your age, period. Is anything hard for you right now?

Ryan: In school? Probably math, because it’s just really hard, fractions. You’re adding different fractions, like one-fourth plus three-eighths or something.  It’s hard.

Jen: Yes. I write words. I don’t like numbers.

Ryan: Yeah. It’s like, okay, you have to estimate five, six-eighths, but you need to know the whole number for five and two-sixths. Like, what?

Jen: Ugh, I’m with you on this. How is it going in school right now with friends? How do you feel like kids are treating each other right now?

Ryan: Pretty good.

Jen: Yeah?

Ryan: Pretty good.

Jen: You think they’re mostly good to each other?

Ryan: All my friends are treating me good. I think everybody’s treating each other good.

Jen: I’m glad to hear that. I’m glad that that’s your experience too. I wonder what you would … What do you think parents should know about what it’s like to be a kid today? Just remember, right now, you got a lot of parents listening to you. So if you could tell them something like, “This is something I kind of wish you knew or I wish you understood or it’d be helpful if parents could keep this in mind,” as we sort of raise and parent you guys.

Ryan: Well, since I’m a kid, if all you guys, parents will be a kid, all the kids now are kind of smarter because of the Internet or it helps them get more smarter, because, yeah, and also kids are more helpful by cleaning up the planet, because when they’re young and they get engaged with it earlier, it becomes a habit.

Jen: You know what? You’re making a great point. And that’s the place I want to turn into right now, because you are a pretty awesome kid and you’re doing some pretty extraordinary things.

So you’re doing something that you say is not exactly a sport to other kids, but it is to you, because you have your own recycling business, which is the coolest thing I have ever heard. Let’s talk about the beginning of this. How did you even get started into recycling?

Ryan: Well, my dad took me to the local recycling center for the first time with a couple of white bags, and if you have heard rePlanet has closed down all through California. And rePlanet’s a recycling center, and that’s where I would take all my cans to, the recycling center. And since they closed, we’re now going into OC Recycling in Santa Ana, California. And so when rePlanet was still open, we would be taking our bags there, and it was like two small white kitchen bags. And they gave me about five bucks for it, and I just loved it and I wanted to keep doing it and doing it. And then the next day, I couldn’t say “business” then, so I said “bidness.” And when my dad got home, he talked to my mom like, “Were you and him planning this?” He’s like, “No.” Or my mom’s like, “No, I thought you and him did this.” He’s like, “No.” So it was all me.

Jen: It was all you. You were just meant to do this. This was just going to be your path. So I’m curious why you love recycling so much. Why has this captured your loyalty and your imagination and your enthusiasm?

Ryan: Well, I just like recycling because I really think it’s really fun. Some kids may not think it’s fun. Some kids may think it’s boring, but to me I think it’s fun. I don’t like sports, but kids may like sports. I like recycling, but kids may not like recycling. It’s like the opposite and stuff.

Jen: This is your thing.

Ryan: It’s really fun.  It’s very easy. It’s very easy.

Jen: It’s very easy. Okay.

Ryan: Anybody out there, I started when I was three and a half and now I’m 10, so if a 10-year-old kid like me could do it, anybody could do it. It’s super easy.

Jen:  Tell us how your company works. How does your company work? What kinds of things do you recycle?

Ryan: Well, the things that I recycle are cans, bottles, glass and wine bottles. If you guys seen me on the Ellen show, from the part that I told Ellen that my mom drinks a lot of wine, that’s right.

Jen: You told on her.

Jen: That’s amazing. Hey, another thing that you’re good at is selling T-shirts, and then even past that, there’s a really special place where you donate that T-shirt money. Right? Can you tell us about that?

Ryan: I would be wearing my shirt, but I’m wearing a different shirt. But if it was, I would be doing this, but all the money from my T-shirts would go to the Marine Center, Pacific Marine Mammal Center, for short PMMC.

Jen: Tell me about that.

Ryan: And I donate all my money there, and it’s like a sea lion place or seals. They rescue them if they’re sick or injured. And if I donate money and it goes towards fish, it will be one buck per one pound of fish. But they also use the money for fish, Pedialyte, medicine, Dawn dish soap, towels, washing detergent, that type of things to wash towels, clean bowls that they eat fish out of.

Jen: How’d you get connected to that? Why do you care about that?

Ryan: Well, when we started getting shirts, it was kind of just for us and our friends and people that we know, but then people all over the world, like India, Russia, Australia, Africa started ordering shirts.

It’s like, “Can I have one of those shirts?” We’re like, “Okay.” So we put it up on my website. I don’t know if I had my website then because it was a long time ago, but I probably did. I may have did not, but still, if so, we may have created it then put it on it, and people all over the world just started finding out about it.

Jen: Wow.

Ryan: And then they were still buying shirts. Then we’re like, “Where should we put all this money?” And then my dad and mom were thinking about it. I’m like, “How about the Marine Center?” Because we visited there, and I liked the animals there. And my favorite animal that they had before was a northern fur seal named Heartbreaker.

Jen: Heartbreaker. Oh, my gosh.

Ryan: I even got to release her back into the ocean.

Jen: Really? Wow. What an experience. That’s amazing.

Ryan: It’s like every two years, they’re really surprised, but down here, they don’t get them that often. They should be up north, maybe Northern California, Oregon, Washington, somewhere up there.

Jen: Okay, okay. I’m really proud of you for donating your money to that place. What a great cause. I really like the kinds of things you care about. Now you mentioned her a minute ago. You have met some pretty cool people doing Ryan’s Recycling. You are having some fun, kid. Can you tell us about a few of the really neat people you’ve met?

Ryan: Well, some of them are like Anderson Cooper, Will Ferrell.

Jen: Ellen.

Ryan: Ellen.

Jen: What was it like being on The Ellen Show?

Ryan: It was actually pretty fun, cool.

Jen: Was it?

Ryan: It was a birthday show, and backstage after the show, we went back to our dressing room and there was this humongous slice of cake as big as my head.

Jen: What? That’s amazing. That’s great. How was Will Ferrell? Pretty cool.

Ryan: Pretty cool. Maria Menounos I met.

Jen: Uh-huh. Nice. You’re so lucky, man. So let me ask you this. How much have you recycled since you started? Do you know that?

Ryan: Great. How many bottles and cans?

Jen: Yeah.

Ryan: I’ve recycled about 620,000 cans and bottles.

Jen: Wow.

Ryan: I hope by the time I’m 12, I have recycled a million, but I’m hoping it’s even earlier, 11 possibly, if possible, by the time I’m almost 11 and I’m 10, because right now I’m still 10.

Jen: That’s crazy.

Ryan: My birthday was July 7th, so-

Jen: Okay, you’re just 10, and you’re already those numbers. I believe in you to hit a million for sure. And you’ve made quite a bit of money so far, right?

Ryan: Yeah.

Jen: Yeah. And you’re donating it. This is just all the greatest story.

Jen:  So let me ask you this, because now you’ve been doing this of course for seven years at this point, you know a lot. You’re an expert in this space. So if somebody is listening right now and they wanted to start recycling, but maybe they don’t know how or they’ve never done it, can you give them a few tips on what they should do maybe to get started?

Ryan: Well, to get started, it’s really easy. All you have to do is maybe if you see a can or bottle on the ground, just pick it up, make sure it gets recycled, or just when you drink a soda can or a water bottle, make sure you recycle it, put it in your recycling bin, or if you want, you can take it to your local recycling center like I do.

Jen: So tell me more. How does this work with your customers? What do you do?

Ryan: My dad put this thing up on my website, like if somebody would like to have me pick up cans, my customers will email him or text them and say like, “Oh, hi. I have four bags of plastic bottles and one bag of cans or something for Ryan, and I live in Aliso Viejo. Can you come and pick it up?” We’re like, “Sure. Is Saturday at 10:00 AM good?” “Sure. That’d be fine with me.” “Okay.” And everybody calls during the week and probably maybe a person or two called today, I’m not sure. But we will go on Saturday or Sunday, pick up something, bring it to our house and store it. And whenever we have enough, we will load up in our truck, drive to Santa Ana, California, and then recycle it.

Jen: Got it. And do you sort it all out? Is that part of your job or do you have to do that?

Ryan: Well, it is kind of part of my job because the recycling center needs it sorted to know what type of material it is.

Jen: Got it.

Ryan: The customers don’t have to sort it though. We can do it all at our house.

Jen: That’s why they’re your customers. You do it.

Ryan: We sort if by can or can, CA CRV plastic, which stands for California Cash Refund Value and non-CA CRV plastic, CA CRV glass and non CA CRV glass.

Jen: Got it.

Ryan: Like the water bottles, that’s CA CRV. And milk jugs is non-CA CRV. And that’s the same with glass. Wine bottles is non-CRV, like beer bottles and Starbucks drink bottles, like mocha drinks. That is CRV.

Jen: Okay. Gosh, you’ve learned a lot about this.

Ryan: I think my dad or something told me that, or the person at the recycling center that we take our cans to, I think I heard her talking to my dad, saying that California may put a refund value on wine bottles and vodka bottles and stuff.

Jen: Okay. Okay.

Ryan: I’m kind of excited about that.

Jen: Yeah. Your company’s just going to grow. How many customers do you think you have?

Ryan: I think I have about 300 customers, let’s say.

Jen: Wow, that’s a lot. You’re going to have to get a bigger truck. You got to get a driver’s license is what you need to get.

Ryan: I know. Actually, I could already drive. I could drive my mini car.

Jen: That’s true. Okay, so let me ask you a handful of questions to help us old parents figure out kind of what it’s like to be a kid today. I asked the other kids in this interview series these questions. So right now, what do you like to watch? What are you into?

Ryan: For TV, I like watching the Henry Danger show, SpongeBob, and I do like watching a lot of YouTube, and my favorite YouTube channel is probably Stephen Sharer.

Jen: I know about that. I know about that for my kids. That is super, super popular. It’s interesting how much your age group watches YouTube. You almost watch it like TV, don’t you?

Ryan: Yeah. I don’t really watch TV. That’s mostly my TV, YouTube.

Jen: It’s true, everybody. YouTube’s the new TV.

Ryan: My mom could be watching her TV. I could be watching mine.

Jen: Yep, exactly. What’s your other YouTube channels that you like?

Ryan: That’s mostly it.

Jen: That’s your main one. Okay.

Ryan: Main one.

Jen: Do you listen to music?

Ryan: No, not really. I don’t really listen to music and my dad puts it on the car. I listen to it, but it’s not like I would like to play a song.

Jen: Okay, got it. You’d just rather listen to nothing. Okay. What, right now in fifth grade, what’s your favorite thing to do with your friends?

Ryan: My favorite thing to do with my friends is probably hang out, have play dates after school with them, and on birthdays, I have sleepovers with them. And I still need to have a sleepover because one of my friends that I was going to have it with, he was in Idaho, but then when he got back, I was in Alaska, New York City, and we’re still trying to plan it out.

Jen: Uh-huh . Well, it’s never too late for a cool birthday sleepover. Do you do like my kids do and stay up till the middle of the night?

Ryan: Sometimes. Mostly till about 10:00 or 11:00. I don’t know. I never keep track.

Jen: That’s not so bad. Do you like to read?

Ryan: Sometimes, if it’s a good book.

Jen: You have any books that you love? Do you have a favorite book?

RyanDiary of a Wimpy Kid.

Jen: Sure.

Ryan: And a book called Dog Man.

Jen: Oh, yeah, know about that too. Those are great. Is Dog Man a series or that’s just one book?

Ryan: It’s a series.

Jen: Okay. All right. I’ll have to look that one up. Okay. How about this? What’s your favorite game to play?

Ryan: Favorite game to play?

Jen: Any kind of game. It could be a board game. It can be a video game. It could be an outdoor game, whatever you want, whatever game you like.

Ryan: I don’t really play video games at all, so I would probably say like a board game or a card game, which it is the card game War. Have you heard that?

Jen: Have I heard of it? I’m good at it.

Ryan: Me too.

Jen: Yeah, I wish I could play you.

Ryan: But it’s mostly luck. It’s mostly luck.

Jen: That’s sometimes true. But also I just feel like I’m good at it. I just feel like I could probably beat you at War. My daughter-

Ryan: I don’t know. I’m pretty good at it too.

Jen: Are you? Well, I’m just saying you haven’t seen me play. My daughter Remy loves cards too. And so we play a lot of card games and so I’ve had good to get good because she’s so good that none of us can beat her. And so now I’m really competitive about card games.

Jen: Okay. Here’s the last little bit I’m going to ask you, because you’ve had a long day, you’ve been at school all day. Heck, you probably haven’t had a snack yet, so-

Ryan: Yeah, I have. I’ve had a snack.

Jen: You have? Oh, thank goodness. Okay. So you had mentioned math earlier and you definitely mentioned the cool robot project. Is there anything else really cool that you like in school right now that feels interesting to you or you’re learning about it, and it feels fascinating, you want to know more?

Ryan: That’s about it.

Jen: That’s it. Math and robots, that’s enough for me too to be honest with you.

Ryan: Just learning how to code robots in a cool way. Like doing challenges, racing against other robots, that type things.

Jen: That’s useful. That’s the future is knowing how to code and knowing all that stuff. So that’s a good skill for you. Okay. Let me ask you this. You can be honest, your teachers probably aren’t listening. What subject do you think is boring?

Ryan: Boring subject is probably the language arts or social studies.

Jen: Oh, those are my two favorites. Darn it. Do you have to do a lot of writing yet? Are you writing a lot in fifth grade?

Ryan: Yes. We have to write every day.

Jen: Yeah, that’s what I figured. Okay. Now here’s the very last question I’m going to ask you. You have done amazing on this interview, by the way. You’re used to it, obviously. You’ve been on the Ellen show. This is kind of a weird question, so you can answer it however you want. And this basically just means, what is just awesome for you right now? Because the question we ask all of our guests is: What is saving your life right now? So if you had to look around your world and go, “Ugh, this one thing is the greatest thing I have going on,” what would you say?

Ryan: Probably having my electric scooter for my birthday or having a hoverboard from Christmas or just having my friend Wyatt around to play with.

Jen: Those sound like the three perfect things. We had got my son a hoverboard. Did your parents try it?

Ryan: My dad did.

Jen: How’d he do? Because we fell off, all the way down. It’s harder than it looks. We fell off-

Ryan: It’s easy for me, and I got it for Christmas, but my electric scooter for my birthday.

Jen: That’s perfect. You and Wyatt can just tear up the streets. Well, Ryan, I got to tell you that I am really happy to have met you, and I’m really proud of you for caring so much about the Earth and about recycling, because it matters. That’s a really big deal. And I feel like a lot of us who are older than you haven’t cared enough. And so thank goodness there are kids like you coming up behind us who are taking this seriously and teaching the rest of us to take this seriously.

I’m really proud of you. And we’re going to put your website up on my website, because I have a feeling we’re going to sell some shirts for you. So I hope you have enough because my people are probably going to want them. I want to thank you for coming on the For the Love podcast today. Appreciate you, Ryan.

Ryan: You’re welcome.

Jen: Good to meet you.

Ryan: Nice to meet you.

Jen: Isn’t he the greatest? What a kid. What a great kid. Proud of him. Love it. I just have so much hope for this next generation, you guys. I find them energizing and excited and passionate and they’re paying attention. Isn’t it just encouraging to hear? Ryan’s not alone. This is my experience of his age group, and I just have so much hope. I am so grateful to Ryan for coming on the show and getting to meet all of us.

Guys, we have one more week in the back to school series and it is a good one.

Next week, we are talking to the 2017 and the 2018 national teachers of the year. They are two phenomenal women. I mean, you are just going to have your hair blown back by these two. And so I was so honored that they came on the show, so cannot wait to introduce you to them. You’re going to love it. As we wrap this series up, guys, thanks for subscribing and rating and reviewing this podcast. That is so great for all podcasts and then specifically for mine. Thank you for doing that, and we’re so grateful every single time you share an episode. We see that, you guys. We see it and it means so much to us, and we are so happy to ever put content in front of you that you are glad to share with your friends or your family, your kids, your neighbors, your church. Yay.

Podcasts are no joke, you guys. It is a lot of heavy lifting to get this into your ears every single week and we are glad to do it. It’s our joy. So on behalf of my producer Laura and her whole staff and team, and then my assistant Amanda, who does all the work over on the transcript page, which is at JenHatmaker.com. If you’ve never used that, please go use it. We’ve got the entire transcript written out, plus everything we spoke about will be linked over there, every single thing, all of our guests’ information and all of their social follows, and then bonus material. We’ve always got extra pictures and extra stuff.

So that’s at JenHatmaker.com, underneath the podcast tab. So be sure to use that resource, which Amanda puts together for you every single week of her life. Okay, you guys. We will see you next week. Have a good one.

Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!

connect with ryan hickman:


Shop Jen's Faves

From exclusive, limited-edition items to my must-haves, check out all my latest faves.


Take a peek around

If you’re not sure where to begin, I got you, friend. I’m always bringing you something new to enjoy.

Read More About Jen