The Father Who Was Transformed By His Son’s Autism.
And it would lead him, to then transform the lives of thousands of other “differently-abled” Americans. Former Walgreens executive Randy Lewis’ incredible story as part of our Special Fathers series.
Dad To Dad 2 – Randy Lewis: The Walgreens Story & Providing Employment For Those With Disability
Lee Habeeb: This is Lee Habeeb, and this is our American stories and it’s time for our Special Father’s Series, which tells the stories of fathers with special needs children. And it’s brought to us by the Special Fathers Network, which matches up longtime fathers with special needs children, with brand new ones for fellowship and mutual counseling on their shared journey of ups and downs.
And you can learn more about it at 21stcenturydads.org. That’s 21stcenturydads.org.
And now here’s our own Alex Cortez with this edition.
Alex Cortez: Life was going great for Randy Lewis. He Rose to become a vice president at Walgreens, and then he had a son with autism and a new life that would be different. Only 58% of young adults with autism are employed and fewer get married.
Randy Lewis: I learned that disability plays no favorites. Whatever color Brown plays, no favorites. And I was thinking about all those people, you know, wealthy people, not to wealthy people. People struggle. What are they going to do? And here I am in charge of this division. I got 10,000 people at billion dollar budget, if I can’t do something about this, who will? And you know, we were successful company like Walgreens at Walgreens, couldn’t do something about it, which company would?.
Alex Cortez: And before Randy Lewis was a father, he was a son.
Randy Lewis: My father was not expressive, and I always longed that he would long that he would hug me or, but that, that was not his style. Not that he didn’t have the feelings, he wasn’t comfortable enough doing it. Because men didn’t do that. So I used that in the memory of it as a child to always let my kids know I love them.
I mean, they’re so tired of it. Austin’s autism. I’ve told him a thousand times, and I’ve loved him. Ignorant. He never says you when you tell your child I love you, you’re really asking them a question to respond back. “I love you too.” And Austin has never done that. He responds, “Why do you always say that?
And then I say, well, why do I always say that? Well no. And so we try to put it another way. Austin, do you know how much I love you? And. That’s a tough question for him, but he always has interesting answers. His most interesting one is “all day long,” and, okay. And I thought, well, that’s a, that’s a good enough answer. We’ll go with that. That’s the one we have. That’s the one we’ll deal with.
Alex Cortez: Maybe Austin is right. And Randy might have over-corrected a little bit with this love thing, but what would you do if it took your father 22 whole years, to tell you that he loved you.
Randy Lewis: One of the most touching moments for me and my dad the night before I was going to leave for Peru, he goes to the Peace Corps, he came into my room that night. I’d never had a talk you know how you see on TV, those father son talks. You know, that was not the relationship I have with Dad. I don’t remember a single one. And he came into my room and he said, “I’m proud of what you’re doing. There’s always time to the rat race. Once you get in it, it’s hard to get out and I’m glad you’re doing that and I’m proud to have you as my son, and I love you.” And that’s, I think that’s maybe the only time I remember the first time after that, there were lots of times when my father told me he loved me.
Alex Cortez: Love that he’d need. Randy and his wife, Kay, felt like something might be different about Austin. He didn’t cry at all when he came out of the womb and he put himself to sleep as a toddler, but they didn’t make much of it. And finally at three years old after family members kept whispering that Austin was different. They had him tested, at least so that as Randy put it, they can get their family off their back.
Randy Lewis: About a week later, they called us in for the results, and so we came in very optimistic, sat down, and first thing Kay said was, “I know you’re going to tell me I’m giving him too much sugar.” And he did not smile. And I thought, well, either he’s, he doesn’t have a very good personality or this is not going to be good.
So he started reading through the results and it was bad, bad, bad. “We couldn’t test him on this because he didn’t have the level of skill even to be administered tests on blah blah, on and off.” And, uh, he called it pervasive developmental delay, PDD, which is the term they use now, but not as much. But that was sort of a precursor to autism a way of saying, okay, we don’t know what it is. But I know a lot of times that’s a code for fresh parents is we hear that it’s autism. And I remember saying, well, will he grow out of it? Well, you get better. And he stopped. He looked up from his papers and he looked at us and he said he might get worse. And that’s when the bottom fell out.
So Kay and I took the walk back to the car. Kay was crying. I was stoic. We got in the car and she told me later, she looked at the sky and say, “why can this sun be shining on a day like that? How could God let this happen?” And I tried to be the opposite. I said, who’s better prepared to deal with this than us know we have a loving marriage. We have some means. We’ll get through this. Who knows what will come up? Now, I said that as much to me as I did to her, and that’s when the journey started.
Lee Habeeb: And when we come back, the Lewis family’s journey, the special father’s network bringing us our special fathers series. Why would the sun be shining on a day like this, his bride said to him, how could God let this happen? The answer to this and more. Randy Lewis, his story, his family story here on our American story.
This is our American stories and we continue with our special father’s feature and the story of Randy Lewis. His wife and his son, Austin, and their battle with autism.
Alex Cortez: What they got with Austin’s autism was unique. They’re all unique.
Randy Lewis: There’s a saying in autism, once you’ve seen one person with autism, you see one person with autism and now they’re even calling it the spectrum because it’s so wide. I mean, I, there’s a large percent of people who never speak. Who are not verbal. Austin was not verbal. He was taking that track. And then there’s also other things that go with it. You know, you can have IQ issues with it. People with autism have huge activists, but to see without his and the don’t, and the problem is you don’t know because they’re so young and they don’t have the skills yet to expose those abilities or not.
With a young, child. When they’re diagnosed here, you’re taking a track. Your first reaction is let’s fix this, and mostly guys thinking that you know that that’s our toolbox. If there’s a problem, let’s fix it. And that was kind of what I wanted to do.
And then everybody that has read any article about anything, they will give you help. They will say, “there is a music therapy,” or “there’s a this therapy here or this therapy there.” We had everybody trying to give us help, kind of give us solutions and those could be overwhelming and we had to make a decision how much we were willing to do and devote and focus on Austin. And two years later, Austin had a sister. Our third child came along, so we had three children when this was going on. When Austin was diagnosed, we had a newborn, so we had to make a decision about the rest of the children. He’s going to take more energy than any other child we have, but how much are we willing to siphon off all the other energy for our girls, for Austin? Because we only have so much energy. How do we do that? How do we strike a balance? Because we see, we were afraid cause it’s easy for your child with the disability to become the complete focus of the family and the other siblings grow up with that. So we had to strike a balance. So we had, we made a decision, yes, we’re going to pursue it as possible, but we’re not going to move to Canada and we’re not going to try everything along the way. We want to try to bring Austin, who we called our Martian, you know we’re Earthlings, but we had a Martian land on Earth. How will the Martian live effectively on earth because the world’s not going to become Martians for him.
Alex Cortez: Well, this Martian may not have changed the whole world yet, but he has changed his father.
Randy Lewis: One thing that Austin, his gifts to me were, were many. But, uh. And I think all parents with child with disability will say, this is patience. We all fuss at our children. We lose, we lose, we lose patients with them, and we’ll have an outburst that happens. Now with Austin, what happens with him? You know, he shrinks back and he stops behavior, but long after the emotion of it has gone out of me, the anger about the moment, he will come back a day later, two days later, a month later, and re-call that moment and relive the emotions of that moment and it ashamed me. And so I learned to control myself, my bad impulses. And it also made me realize it had the same effect on my whole, my daughters, when I would do it to them, but they have the skills not to show it. Or the coping skill that Austin didn’t, I mean, they felt the same way it was, it was bad for them just as what as it was for Austin. That was a huge gift that Austin gave to me. And being able to see people who are way different as completely worthy Austin has taught me to see a different person and to be able to understand the love that these kids have and everybody has. I mean. Typically abled or not. And that’s, that’s been a huge gift. He’s given me a humanity that was not, maybe it was there, but he’s sure has been able to stroke it and help build it in me. And that’s one of the things that I’m very grateful for him.
Alex Cortez: Austin’s so affected Randy, positively, that he couldn’t keep this impact away from his work life as the head of logistics at Walgreens. This was a brave decision. Randy decided to be vulnerable with his work colleagues at their distribution centers.
Randy Lewis: So I started talking to our general managers. Saying we ought to do something about this. Told him the story of Austin. Hopefully inspire them in kind of just let them on their own to go do something. Work with school systems, maybe hire some kids here and there, but that, that didn’t work out that well. It wasn’t scalable. We had 20 centers across the country. Some people did something, most people didn’t.
And then we built some centers. Four big centers is that year 2000 and some people went out and got these groups working in them that contract out. And that was okay. But then we said, I said, let’s hire some people out of this group, and some people did. And what we found that experience worked is that our employees.
So it came time to build a brand new center and we will make it more automated. We were going to make it the most efficient center in the whole world, and if it’s kind traveled, the world for the technology is going to be the most expensive.
Alex Cortez: And it was going to be in Anderson, South Carolina, a small region of 75,000 folks.
Randy Lewis: And I thought, why can’t we just tweak the Nueces new automation and the new IT? Why don’t we just tweak it to enable a group of people to perform as well as anybody just by tweaking the equipment and, oh, by the way, let’s go with a big number. We wanted a number that would inspire us, so let’s hire one out of three people to be people with a disability.
Now, how I would came up with the number was when we had people working in our centers with disability. Typically because we didn’t want pay for job coaches, we put them with two among two people. Volunteer workers have that person as their coworker and they work alongside and they would mentor that person and they were successful.
Our past said that would work here and there. Two people for every person with a disability. That one out of three. And then when I asked an autism expert, how many typically able coworkers for each person, let’s say with autism, we thought that’s a difficult disability, would we need, and he said probably two. So we had two data points. So that became the numbers.
We were going to have 600 employees and something, you know, nobody had ever done a mission critical site with that big a number, 200 people out of 600 people. And we launched that. And we had that number cause it had to inspire us. Nobody, we had to tell the team, nobody’s ever done this. And the standard is to give it your best. If there’s a process that gets in a way or a policy we have that you can’t get around, come to me. Otherwise, we’re going to make mistakes, figure it out, give it your best, because if it doesn’t work well, we’re going to tell the world nobody else can do it. Cause we gave it our best and that’s it. We want to sleep well at night.
So that number of 30% became 40%. Next building, we opened at this 50% and then we brought all the GMs and they saw what was there and the culture it created and performance and all that kind of thing. And they all wanted to do it. So they set a goal for themselves, a thousand people with disabilities, within four years, 10% of the workforce. Which they achieved. And then having achieved that, and we all, by the way, in one of the things that helped inspire us was appealing to our better. Angels says, when we do this, we used to never let anybody in our centers. We would, you know, we thought we were the best or either the worst, we didn’t want anybody else to know about, but we didn’t share things with other companies. They were our competitors. But on this, we said, when we do this, if we’re successful, we’re going to give it away. We’re going to open our doors to the world, even our competitors, and I think that appeals to people that were working for something bigger than us.
And I think that has challenged everybody and inspired everybody to do it. So they set a go for a thousand. Achieved it, and then they started goal for for 2,000, 20% which they’re working on now. And we did give away a lot. So the company came. Best Buy, P&G came , UPS, companies overseas, Marks and Spencer in the UK.
And it continues to grow.
Lee Habeeb: We’re working for something bigger than us. You’re listening to Randy Lewis, his story, his son, Austin’s story. Now we’re learning about a major company in this country, Walgreen’s response. And it’s remarkable and it’s beautiful. And by the way, what the dad said about Austin, “I learned to control my bad impulses, and that was a huge gift to me. And to my family.”
Special Fathers Series brought to us by the Special Fathers Network, Randy Lewis, his story and his family’s here on our American stories more after these messages.
This is our American story, Randy Lewis and his son Austin story. By the way, if you want to pick up Randy’s book on this subject, No Greatness Without Goodness, you can go to amazon.com and pick it up. But now the rest of the story, we go back and return to Alex Cortez.
Alex Cortez: That even led some universities to come down and study what the heck was going on here. And could these Walgreens distribution centers measure up to the quote unquote normal ones.
Randy Lewis: And the study that shows productivity is the same. Safety is better, retention is better. Those conflict. So there was no really downside except to do something different.
Alex Cortez: And then Randy shared what this all has really meant. A powerful personal story of one of the very first differently ables employees at their South Carolina distribution center.
Randy Lewis: You know, when we made this announcement that we were going to hire 200 people in this one building people disability, I, you know, I was shocked at the bail it rang across the country, you know, 200 people.
I mean, Wall Street Journal wrote an article on it and NBC news came, and ABC, 200 people as it is a situation so desperate that this is a big deal? And I remember we had one woman who. Here we are in South Carolina getting ready to open up South Carolina. A lot of the news gets all the way out to California. This woman, Desari working out there as a temp, she has the disability of a rare muscle condition that requires that she used a Walker.
So one day Desari raise over there in San Diego working as a temp at this admin position, and she comes in with her walker and their boss says, “what’s the deal with the Walker?” And Desari says, “well, I don’t use it all the time, but sometimes I need it.” And he says, “great, come back when you don’t.”
Desari packed up her bags, move their family across the country, a year before we opened just for the chance to apply, and now she is a supervisor and that buildind.
Alex Cortez: And Randy couldn’t help himself, but to continue.
Randy Lewis: A young man named Chuck. He’s on the autism spectrum. We hired him and put him between two ladies. We hired him in our Pennsylvania center before we opened up our center in South Carolina. He was one of the guys that kind of gave us the idea. Yeah, there’s two, two for one would the work, because Chuck did a great job, but you know, once or twice a day, a purple plastic tote, would pass through his area and Chuck would stop and start dancing. And yell out in glee for everybody’s attention. So that’s how we knew his favorite color was purple. And then the question was, is this something we can accommodate? Is this behavior appropriate for a professional work environment? And we kind of came to the conclusion when it comes down to it, which would we prefer? Complaining or dancing?
So we said, let’s go with the dance.
Alex Cortez: And Randy continued storytelling some more.
Randy Lewis: In our Connecticut center, which was the second center, and that’s almost 50% of the people with disability. This young man named Chris who is, has TBI, traumatic brain injury. I didn’t know his disability. But if you meet him, you would think he’s the most charming guy in the world. I mean, it’s coworkers love him. He loves them. Matter of fact, I think he calls himself the mayor of the work area. And every time I go to the center, I always go talk to Pria. And matter of fact, he’s one of the few pictures that I have on my wall, Chris and I standing together cause he, he did make the place better and he’s fantastic. So last time I was there, he said, my mom would really like to talk to you. So I said, okay, and that’s always, you wonder what that call’s going to be like. So I call her up and she’s very gracious, she said “oh I recognize your voice from the Ted talk.” And I said, well, it was great to talk to you. And she says, you know, Chris loves his job and he gets there an hour and a half before his shift starts so he can meet with his friends and talk to them, and they sit in the cafeteria and talk. And she said, that’s so important to him because when Chris was in high school, he sat alone and now he has friends and a reason to come to work early.
We don’t think about those things. That’s something we just don’t, it’s just below on our radar and when you hear that, it makes it all worthwhile. How many of those other Chris’s are sitting out those in those school cafeterias today? Knowing stories like that makes it easy to keep carrying the ball forward even when you get knocked down occasionally.
And that’s why I’ve stayed in this, you know, four years after retirement, continuing to advocate, share the story, and to help more businesses do this, which they are. Grateful they are.
Alex Cortez: And these awesome folks like Chris and Desari are truly normal employees, at least as far as Walgreens is concerned.
Randy Lewis: From the get go. I mean, we had to remember we’re a business, not a charity, so if we were going to make this work, we said really same, same performance standard, same pay, same jobs side by side, and I think that’s what made it successful. If we were going to be able to sustain it. That was a standard we had to do. And some people will ask, what time kinds of disabilities could you not hire? And we’ve determined, I mean we’ve been at this 10 years now, we haven’t found a single type of disability that we will automatically exclude. Cause everything is spectrum. Everything’s a spectrum.
For example, mental illness. Yeah, that’s a scary one. Everybody’s afraid of mental illness, and we had to think, well, we know how we have people with compulsive OCD, compulsive disorder, something like that, or depression or paranoia, and that’s just a senior executive. So, hey, we already have experience.
It worked out across the board. Now, not every person with autism will be successful. Not every person with mental illness will be successful, but guess what? Among our typically abled population, not everybody will be successful too. And we had to kind of look at it that way. But Oh, by the way, a lot more people are successful than most people would give them credit for, and they changed us to for the better.
Alex Cortez: And here’s Randy Louis’s closing advice for parents with differently abled children.
Randy Lewis: Here’s the biggest thing. In those early years, all the stories we play in our head are all the things that can go wrong. You know, we see it. We see the doom stories more than we see the hope story. Here’s what I learned.
Austin turned out so differently than I had projected. Most of those bad stories don’t come true. Some of them will. But know that your worst story probably won’t, and our children contiue to develop. Austin is not the same man at 28 as he was at 27 and certainly not at 21. That story will be different than the one that goes on in your head.
I was shocked to learn Austin learned to drive. That was the same thing as a child learning Summa Cum Laude from Harvard. That changed his life that much. He drives. Then I found out he gets on the train, goes to Chicago by himself, and then he rents a bicycle bike. I’ve never seen that. And Oh, by the way, Austin is the only person in the house with a steady paycheck now. He works at a Meijer distribution center, drives an hour away. He’s been working there for three years, full time jobs. Oh, and Oh, by the way, good begets good because Meijer, you know the big chain here in the Midwest, they took our program. And the CEO called me up, “so we’re going to open up the center, Wisconsin. I don’t know if it’s near you, but if it is, we’d like one of our first employees to be Austin.”
Who would have thought that. Having centers near us. So I didn’t do this for Austin. I thought maybe in worst case, if I had to move maybe to another city where one of these where I could beg for a job, but it turned out to be much better than that.
Lee Habeeb: And what an amazing story about bringing differently abled Americans into the workplace. Randy’s story, his son, Austin’s story, Chris, Chuck, Desari, Walgreens, and so many other companies. Special Father’s Series brought to us by the Special Fathers Metwork, and you can learn more and sign up to be a part of this fantastic network 21stcenturydads.org that’s 21stcenturydads.org. This is our American stories.