This is Flossmoor, Illinois store manager Joe Fabian in a mock store located in Naperville, complete with Walgreens products, checkout processes and technology. It’s where students enrolled in training programs at the Turning Pointe Autism Foundation can practice the skills they’ve learned, such as stocking shelves or working the cash register, with real store managers. It’s a place where mistakes can be made and learned from, and lifelong careers can be launched.
A Walgreens partner for 10 years, Turning Pointe is an organization that aims to educate people with autism in the life skills necessary to live and work independently. Graduates of Turning Pointe’s adult training program can be interviewed and hired for roles at any Walgreens store, and to date, there have been 58 graduates of the program, many of whom have been hired in Chicago-area Walgreens stores and can be counted among their longest tenured associates.
Laying the groundwork for neurodiverse hiring
In 2012, Randy Lewis, a former senior vice president at Walgreens, set out to increase hiring of neurodiverse individuals in distribution centers and commit to making Walgreens a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Neurodiversity refers to the developmental differences that emerge in the brain and create variations in thinking and behavior, resulting in diagnoses like autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, dyslexia and more. Lewis has a child with autism and knew that while his son had the ability to learn how to hold a steady job, he lacked the opportunity to do so. The hiring program, which set out with the goal of hiring one neurodiverse person for every three team members, was a success, and one distribution center eventually operated with 50% neurodiverse individuals.
To continue the forward momentum, the Walgreens Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team searched for new ways to partner with local organizations and hire neurodiverse people in customer-facing roles. Fabian, father to a child with autism, was known for volunteering his time outside of work to coach running for kids with additional needs. He enthusiastically volunteered to help launch the partnership with Turning Pointe and develop more opportunities for adults capable of working in stores.
“A few store managers and district managers sat down with the Turning Pointe team to figure out how to make this partnership work,” reflects Fabian. “At the time, Turning Pointe had just moved into the old Naperville Sun newspaper building, and it sparked an idea I had from volunteering with Easterseals, an organization that provides disability services. They worked with stores that were being remodeled, and Walgreens had donated merchandise to show their students how to check out of a store. That idea morphed into creating the mock Walgreens store we have today. When it was up and running, I reached out to several store managers to see if they’d be interested in getting involved and teaching and hiring these students. Thirteen said yes.”
Building targeted programs for the neurodiverse
Turning Pointe’s executive director, Carrie Provenzale, has been involved in the partnership since writing the initial underwriting grant for the training program. Now, she helps shape curriculum and oversees the growth of the program so that it fits the unique needs of the students.
“Realistically, we all have splinter skills—some things we’re really good at and some things we’re not good at,” says Provenzale. “For people with autism, sometimes those splinter skills can be dramatic, like high reading and comprehension skills but very low social skills. So we assess where our applicants are with those skills and use clinical tools to develop the classroom portion specifically to students.”
The training program has three focus areas: communication, independence and direct employability skills. Over a nine-month period, students learn how to speak with managers and deposit paychecks, interface with customers and stock shelves, manage the cash register and work with confidence alongside their other team members. Upon completing the program, graduates are Walgreens Certified Retail Trained and ready for hire.
Vivian Ayuso-Sanchez, director, DEI, disability and affirmative action at Walgreens, notes that it’s not just the Turning Pointe graduates who benefit from this program, but team members and customers, too.
“Many of these candidates come in lacking in confidence and self-esteem,” says Ayuso-Sanchez. “This is their first job opportunity, and to see how they blossom and become key members of the team and such reliable and good employees is a testament to both what they have to offer and to the environment and commitment from Walgreens. Many of their parents come to us just to thank us for the opportunity because of the change they see in their child.”
Provenzale points out that in today’s hiring environment, hiring a Turning Pointe graduate means cutting out the time needed to train a new employee.
“Now managers can decide if they want to hire a candidate who they have to train on top of their usual duties, or a candidate who has the job skills already,” says Provenzale. “And many people with autism like routine. For positions where there can be turnover, our graduates appreciate staying in a role that’s predictable. It’s less stressful, and that’s great for managers.”
Take it from Megan Lin, a Turning Pointe graduate who has been working at a Naperville, Illinois, Walgreens since 2019. Now, with nearly four years of employment under her belt, she trains new store team members herself. Her favorite thing about the job?
“My manager and my co-workers,” says Lin. “Which is good—because I see them almost every day. I hope I work there for a long time.”
For the sixth year in a row, Walgreens has received a top score of 100 on the Disability Equality Index by Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities. With successes like this and Lin’s to point to, Ayuso-Sanchez is hard at work on expanding neurodiverse programs more broadly at Walgreens. Specifically, a neurodiverse hiring program for support operations is in development to be introduced in the next few months.
“Our team members embrace the Turning Pointe graduates and so do our customers,” says Ayuso-Sanchez. “I don’t get complaints. All we hear from customers is that they think it’s amazing we are doing things like this and opening doors to people with all sorts of abilities. And with our new neurodiverse program, we will send a message not only to our team members inside Walgreens but to the organizations and communities we work with that we believe people with different abilities can do any job in the company.”
To learn more about the Turning Pointe Foundation and Walgreens from Joe Fabian and Holly May, Walgreens Boots Alliance executive vice president and global chief human resources officer, watch the video below.