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. 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. You can learn more about it at 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. Rich, poor, black, white, whatever color—it plays no favorites. And I was thinking about all those people, you know, wealthy people, not so wealthy people. People struggle. What are they going to do? And here I am in charge of this division. I’ve got 10,000 people and a billion dollar budget. If I can’t do something about this, who will? We were successful company. If 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 hug me, but that was not his style. Not that he didn’t have the feelings. He wasn’t comfortable doing it, because men didn’t do that. So I used that memory of it as a child to always let my kids know I love them. I mean, they’re so tired of it. Austin has autism. I’ve told him a thousand times I’ve loved him. 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, 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 I thought, “Well, that’s a good enough answer. We’ll go with that. If 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 was the night before I was going to leave for Peru to go to the Peace Corps. He came into my room that night. I’d never had a talk like you see on TV, those father-son talks. You know, that was not the relationship I had 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. I’m proud to have you as my son, and I love you.” And I think that’s 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. 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 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 test, on and on….” And he called it pervasive developmental delay, PDD, which is the term they use now, but not as much then. But that was sort of a precursor to autism, a way of saying, “Okay, we don’t know what it is.” But a lot of times that’s a code for us parents, when we hear that it’s autism. And I remember saying, “Well, will he grow out of it? Will he 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 said, “Why can this sun be shining on a day like this? 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? You 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.
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’ve seen one person with autism.” And now they’re even calling it the spectrum, because it’s so wide. I mean, 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. There are people with autism who have huge IQs, but there are people with autism that 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.
When a young child is diagnosed, you’re taking a track. Your first reaction is, “Let’s fix this,” and mostly guys think 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, will give you help. They will say, “There is music therapy,” or, “There’s this therapy here or this therapy there.” We had everybody trying to give us help, trying 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. So we had three children when this was going on. 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 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 made a decision. Yes, we’re going to pursue it in the best way possible, but we’re not going to move to Canada, and we’re not going to try everything along the way. We called Austin 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: Austin’s gifts to me were many. And I think all parents with a child with disability will say this is patience. We all fuss at our children. We lose patience with them, and we’ll have an outburst. That happens. Now with Austin, what happens with him, he shrinks back and he stops the behavior. But long after the emotion of it has gone out of me, the anger of 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 shames me.
So I learned to control myself, my bad impulses. And it also made me realize it had the same effect on 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 have. I mean, they felt the same way. It was as bad for them just 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 these kids have, and everybody has, typically abled or not. And that’s been a huge gift. He’s given me a humanity that was not there, or 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 reasons I’m very grateful for him.
Alex Cortez: Austin 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.” I told them the story of Austin, hopefully to inspire them to go do something on their own—work with school systems, maybe hire some kids here and there. But 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, in the year 2000. And some people went out and got these groups working in them that contract out. And that was okay. But then I said, “Let’s hire some people out of this group.” And some people did.
And what we found is that experience worked, as our employees. So it came time to build a brand new center and we were going to make it more automated. We were going to make it the most efficient center in the whole world of it’s kind. We traveled the world for the technology. It’s 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 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 came up with the number was when we had people working in our centers with disability, because we didn’t want pay for job coaches, we typically put them among two people, volunteer workers, who have that person as their coworker. They would work alongside and 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’s one out of three.
And then when I asked an autism expert, “How many typically able coworkers would we need for each person, let’s say with autism?” We thought, “That’s a difficult disability.” 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 nobody had ever done in a mission critical site with that big a number: 200 people out of 600 people. And we launched that.
And we had that number, because it had to inspire us. 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 the 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, because we gave it our best, and we want to sleep well at night.”
So that number of 30% became 40%. Next building, we opened it was 50%. And then we brought in all the GMs, and they saw what was there and the culture it created and the 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 by the way, one of the things that helped inspire us was appealing to our better angel, who says when we do this…we used to never let anybody in our centers. We thought we were either the best or the worst, we didn’t want anybody else to know about it, so 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 goal for a thousand, achieved it, and then they set a goal for 2,000, 20%, which they’re working on now. And we did give away a lot. So the companies came. Best Buy. P&G came. UPS. Companies overseas. Marks & Spencer in the UK. And it continues to grow.
Lee Habeeb: This is Our American Story with Randy Lewis and his son Austin. 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 for the rest of the story, we 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 “normal” ones?
Randy Lewis: And the study that shows productivity is the same. Safety is better, retention is better. All those kind of things. 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 abled employees at their South Carolina distribution center.
Randy Lewis: You know, when we made this announcement that we were going to hire 200 people with disabilities in this one building, I was shocked at the bell 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. Is the situation so desperate that this is a big deal?
And I remember one woman in particular. 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, was 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 is over there in San Diego working as a temp at this admin position, and she comes in with her walker. And her 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, moved their family across the country a year before we opened just for the chance to apply, and now she is a supervisor in that building.
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, this two for one would the work. 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, almost 50% of the workers are people with disability. There is a young man named Chris who 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, his 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 Chris. And matter of fact, one of the few pictures I have on my wall is Chris and I standing together, because he did make the place better. 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 you always 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 is 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 that’s just below our radar. And when you hear that, it makes it all worthwhile. How many of those other Chris’s are sitting out 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, to continuing to advocate, to share the story, and help more businesses do this—which they are. Gratefully they are.
Alex Cortez: And these awesome folks like Chris, Chuck and Desari are truly normal employees, at least as far as Walgreens is concerned.
Randy Lewis: From the get go, we had to remember we’re a business, not a charity. So if we were going to make this work, we said 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 kinds of disabilities could you not hire?” We’ve been at this ten years now, and we haven’t found a single type of disability that we will automatically exclude, because everything is a 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 we aleady 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 too for the better.
Alex Cortez: And here’s Randy Lewis’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. 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 continue 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. 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. 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 a center in 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 the worst case, if I had to move maybe to another city where one of these were, 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 Network. You can learn more and sign up to be a part of this fantastic network at 21stcenturydads.org.