It was early Thursday afternoon on Dec. 30, 2021. A thick, sooty gray haze had descended over the parking lot, obscuring the lights that had automatically clicked on, tricked into thinking dusk had fallen. With the haze came an overwhelming smell of smoke that began to choke the air for Hoover—the store’s shift leader—his fellow team members and customers inside. It was a distressing sign of looming danger for the store, and for the community it served.
Across Superior, neighboring Louisville, and throughout Boulder County, more than 35,000 people were also evacuating, clogging roads and highways desperately trying to escape the wildfire as it raced east, fueled by those fierce and unrelenting winds roaring out of the Front Range Foothills.
Dave Ternus, Walgreens asset protection manager, recalled the helplessness of watching the devastation of the fire: “The winds were driving flames through this community and into neighborhoods. We all watched with horror as we saw the places where we live and work on fire from end to end.”
When the flames were finally and fortuitously extinguished by a snowstorm 24 hours later, the Marshall Fire, as it was named, had devastated multiple communities, destroying more than 1,000 homes across a nearly 10 square mile area between Boulder and Denver, with numerous businesses and entire subdivisions reduced to ash. It would turn out to be the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.
As the scope of the damage began to be understood, the immediate focus of Walgreens leaders at the store, area, and corporate levels was threefold: helping impacted team members, getting the affected stores back up and operating, and identifying the needs of the community, then quickly mobilizing resources to help their neighbors who desperately needed assistance.
The three Walgreens stores in Superior and Louisville were spared, but suffered problems ranging from power and gas interruptions, to more extensive smoke damage. Hoover’s store in Superior was just a quarter mile from a subdivision that had been burned to the ground.
Several Walgreens team members weren’t so fortunate. One lost his home and several others were displaced from theirs and forced to find shelter, food and clothing during a holiday weekend when the banks and stores still left standing were closed.
Walgreens leaders immediately stepped forward with assistance, using corporate credit cards to help impacted team members secure hotel rooms, meals and clothing, then working to provide longer-term assistance through the Walgreens Benefit Fund, which was created to support employees through disasters like this.
“When it came to our response, we kept asking ourselves ‘How do we do the right thing for our people?’” said Muniz.
But even bigger problems remained to be solved. With a disaster of this magnitude, large scale assistance is an absolute. Inspired by another Walgreens fundraiser that raised tens of thousands of dollars in relief funds after a wildfire damaged swaths of northwest Colorado earlier in 2021, the District 62 and District 64 teams looked to replicate that success to benefit those in Superior, Louisville and others in Boulder County.
The plan would leverage the checkout PIN pads at point-of-sale at the 148 Walgreens stores in the state, asking customers for donations to the American Red Cross to benefit Marshall Fire victims. Yatar Kuyateh, Walgreens Western director of pharmacy and retail operations, and John Gremer, Walgreens senior director of community affairs, made it happen, bringing the fundraiser to life starting January 7, just one week after the fire.
“We knew from the fundraiser just a few months earlier that using our PIN pads was the fastest and most efficient means to raise as much money as we could,” said Kuyateh. “We wanted to get donations to the Red Cross as quickly as possible because people were hurting and needed help.”
In just seven days the stores raised $204,338, to which Walgreens donated an additional $25,000 to bring the total contribution to nearly $230,000. It was money donated through the good will of thousands of Coloradans whose hearts and thoughts were with their neighbors during unimaginable hardship.
To Kuyateh, stepping up to help was the only thing to do.
“Most people see this from afar, but when you actually visit these sites you feel the impact,” she said. “Imagine living this disaster every day. Imagine what your team members are going through, what your customers are going through—losing their homes, their businesses, everything they owned. Walgreens isn’t just a store or a collection of stores, we’re members of these communities, so we needed to find a way to make a difference.”