Five high school seniors and store manager Megan Bunyan stand in the aisle they walked down during a special in-store graduation ceremony at a Walgreens in Joliet, Ill.
Alexus Maldonado had her future all planned out. As a senior at Joliet Central High School in Joliet, Ill., she was about to attend prom, receive her diploma and enjoy her summer before attending nursing school in the fall. But when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly changed her course, she learned she could still find moments of unexpected joy amid all the uncertainty.
“When we first started e-learning in mid-March, I was kind of in denial,” says Maldonado, pharmacy technician at a Walgreens in Joliet. “I was hopeful, thinking, ‘If I can at least have a graduation … If I can at least walk the stage …’ The day we found out we weren’t going back to school, that's when it really hit me. But in that moment, I also realized I can't be stuck on what I’m missing. I have to find the good in this and look to the future.”
Celebrating the good – events, weddings, babies – is a completely normal occurrence at manager Megan Bunyan’s store. She and her team were already planning to have a graduation party for Maldonado and four other high school seniors who work there when she had a stroke of brilliance.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we do a graduation ceremony along with the party?’” recalls Bunyan. “The team loved the idea, and they took it from there.”
Setting the stage
Bunyan’s team got to work. They bought caps, made invitations in the photo lab and printed mock diplomas with superlatives for each graduate. Invites were mailed to graduates’ homes or hand-delivered during their shifts.
“When I first saw the invite, I couldn’t believe it,” says Maldonado. “It was so heartwarming to know my store really cares about me and the other seniors. They're totally understanding as to what's going on. It felt really, really nice to have that done for us.”
Each graduate was allowed to bring up to two guests; Maldonado planned to have her mom and younger brother attend. The only caveat? The ceremony started at 7:30 a.m.
“We wanted to do it before the store opened so it would be just about them,” says Bunyan. “No customers, no tasks, no distractions.”
The day before the ceremony, team members decorated the store after it closed, putting up balloons, signs and a paper runner down the middle aisle. Then they waited for the walk to begin.
Pomp and unusual circumstance
Pharmacy technician Alexus Maldonado is proud to be part of the “pandemic” class of 2020.
“As I walked down the long, paper runner, I was thinking, “Oh, my goodness, I'm graduating – this is my graduation,’” says Maldonado. “I might not be able to have the graduation I imagined, but at least I have a company who cares. They were putting it on for us, so I wanted to make the most of it. I was like, ‘I'm graduating today!’”
Walking past the seasonal merchandise, she smiled as she approached a small stage to accept her “diploma.” Bunyan congratulated her, and she posed for the photo opp. Inside Maldonado’s diploma, it read, “For outstanding performance in your high school career,” along with “Most Likely To Win a Nobel Prize.”
“The store and pharmacy managers know us all so well, so the superlatives matched who we are as individuals,” says Maldonado. “It was very personal and genuine. It's amazing to see how much they care, how much they truly know us as workers, but also as people. Mine fit me so well. I'm a go-getter.”
A proud parent
Maldonado’s mother, looking on, began to cry: happy tears, proud ones. She was also taking as many photos as possible.
“It was especially emotional because I’m the first person in my entire family to graduate high school,” says Maldonado. “So my mom said she really enjoyed having that moment to see me walk across the stage, even though it was just a little stage. She was very proud of me. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Congratulations to (from left) Kamren Tait, Arturo Garcia, Alexus Maldonado, Julian Rodriguez, Danna Montoya and all of the high school seniors at Walgreens on being part of the historic class of 2020.