Not long ago, an elderly customer was discussing pharmacy co-pays with Walgreens store manager Stephanie Collins, and something felt … off. A mistake by insurance, maybe? The number he was paying seemed too high.
Collins’ bond with seniors tends to be instinctive, immediate – and more than just the friendly banter that flows whenever these customers come into her store in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., a rustic town of about 10,000 near the Alabama border. She’s drawn to the seniors, zones in on their needs. She’s protective of them – “little old veterans who come in wearing their World War II caps, or the ladies who come in for prescriptions because they’re going to the doctor every week,” she says.
So, working with her pharmacy team, she set about asking the man’s insurance provider to review his records, to make sure everything was correct.
“I said to him, ‘I don’t mean to get in your business, but if I were your family, this is what I would try to do for you,’” she says.
“And he looked back at me and said, ‘You are my family.’”
In this together
It’s the sort of line that puts a lump in your throat, and Collins is certainly not the first Walgreens store manager to hear it. Across the chain – in larger cities but especially in smaller towns like Lawrenceburg where there might be just one Walgreens – the concept is both common and reciprocal: Customers are our family. And seniors and the disadvantaged in particular often feel the same way back.
“They can be some of the lonelier people in your community – overlooked or forgotten about,” says Collins. “If they’re alone and live by themselves, we may be the only people they speak with each week.”
For Collins, that makes this and every holiday season a call to action, to expand kindness beyond the walls of her store. For the last eight years, she has been one of the “Walgreens elves” hard at work, spearheading local involvement with the “Santa for Seniors” program through the South Central Tennessee Development District, a state agency that provides a variety of services – meals, transportation, medical assistance and more – to elderly residents facing severe financial hardship.
Residents who qualify for Santa for Seniors write “wish lists” of the items they need most. Employees from several businesses and organizations then buy items off those lists. Walgreens is the program’s biggest participant. That’s largely due to Collins and a tight-knit group of fellow store managers who collect items at stores across the Franklin, Tenn., district – Collins organizing the southern portion and Franklin store manager Catherine Crisp handling the north. Regional administrative assistant Michelle Harriford gathers even more donations at the corporate office up the highway in Nashville. Sometimes customers chip in, too. Last year, the Walgreens group made Christmas special for 70 seniors who might otherwise have had nothing – the team’s biggest impact yet.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Collins. “They often need basics like socks and underwear, and ask for a lot of food items – canned goods – because they don’t have groceries to eat. Last year there was a man who wanted overalls, and everything was bought for him but the overalls, so I went and got those.”
Collecting for seniors isn’t the end of her work this season. For the second straight year, she and her store team are also informally “adopting” three adult women with developmental disabilities at a nearby group home – the result of a chance conversation between Collins and the women’s caretaker last fall.
The three women have no living relatives. Between Collins’ co-workers, customers and friends, she raised hundreds of dollars last year to buy hand-picked gifts for the women. There were clothes, coats, toys, bath items, snacks.
On Christmas morning, the caretaker sent photos of the women opening their gifts, beaming with joy.
“We wanted them to know they have friends at Walgreens,” says Collins.
An inspiration across the area
Collins’ commitment to giving is widely known, and not just at the holidays. There was the local elderly woman whose living room floor was caving in earlier this year, requiring people to clear out her possessions so a repair crew could come in. Another senior badly needed her house painted. In both cases, Collins organized a dozen Walgreens team members to show up on a Saturday morning and get the job done.
“She’s very active and involved in the community – that comes across loud and clear,” says Colby Fries, area director of retail and pharmacy operations for the Nashville South region. “But it comes across even more from her team members, who are inspired by the way she leads outside of the store. That translates into the store. It’s more than a Walgreens. It’s more than their Walgreens. They’re a true community location that everybody recognizes.”
Lawrenceburg is more rural and remote than most Walgreens locations across the area – with a post behind the store for Amish customers to tether their horses and buggies. Fries finds himself asking how he can learn more from Collins and her regular contributors – to replicate the spirit of giving he sees there.
Collins tries to deflect the attention.
“It takes a village,” she says. “It’s my whole team, my whole district.”
And yet it’s so personal.
She and her team have invited an older gentlemen, a beloved regular customer, to her store’s holiday potluck event this week.
Why? Because it’s Walgreens.
Because he’s family.
“Being there for other people catches like fire,” she says. “It makes me sleep better at night knowing we’ve done something that’s important for somebody versus just going to a job, you know what I mean? I try to live it every day.
“It’s more than just a job, what we’re doing here. We’re more than just a store.”