Written by our Founder and CEO, the Celebrations Pulse letters aim to engage with our community. By welcoming your ideas and sharing your stories, we want to help you strengthen your relationships with the most important people in your life.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan declared March as National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. The goal was to inspire individuals and businesses to support people with developmental disabilities so that they can achieve productive and fulfilling lives.

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My family understood the obstacles firsthand. My younger brother, Kevin, was born with a cognitive disability, and my parents devoted themselves to ensuring his happiness and integration into the community. I’ve written before about how they often rented a community center to host other families like ours so everyone could meet and socialize without stigma.

I often think about how much Mom and Dad worried about what would happen to Kevin once they were gone. Back then, it was common for adults with disabilities to end up in state-run institutions. Thanks to increased awareness, that outcome is far less likely today.

But challenges persist, especially around employment. That’s why in 2015, based on a suggestion from my friend Walter Stockton, my family and I started Smile Farms, a program that helps people with disabilities find meaningful work in the agricultural and hospitality industries. Kevin, along with thousands of others, is thriving in the program.

I’ve been fortunate to become friends with other families of children with disabilities. It’s inspiring to hear their stories of how they’ve overcome the challenges, and, at the same time, brought along other families to ensure a better and more equitable world for everyone.

An Amazing Mom’s advocacy

Rosemary Alfredo’s daughter, Collette Divitto, was born with Down’s syndrome, and she quickly realized that her daughter’s school wasn’t set up to teach her the life skills needed to compete in the workforce.

To overcome that, Rosemary partnered with educators to develop projects and lessons to help Collette develop confidence and self-esteem while she learned. When Collette was in high school, Rosemary worked with school administrators to build an individualized curriculum incorporating traditional learning and valuable life skills.

After Collette graduated from Clemson University’s LIFE program and moved to Boston, she applied for numerous jobs but was continually turned down because she wasn’t the “right fit” for the companies.

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That’s when Collette, who inherited determination from her mother, took matters into her own hands. With her mom’s assistance, she combined her life-long love of baking with business and launched Collettey’s Cookies, a profitable online bakery.

Collettey’s has now sold over 400,000 cookies to date and employs 15 people, several with disabilities. Collette travels around the country, sharing her success story and giving lots of credit to her Amazing Mom.

A dad opens doors at Walgreens

Randy Lewis, the former head of supply chain and logistics at Walgreens, is another hero parent. His son, Austin, was born with autism and inspired Randy to think about finding opportunities for people with disabilities.

Over 10 years, he developed a program at the pharmacy chain that has become the model for incorporating people with disabilities into the workforce. And it’s continued after Randy’s retirement: Today, more than 10% of the company’s logistics workforce comprises people with disabilities who perform the same jobs, earn the same pay, and are held to the same standards as other team members. Randy shares:

Everybody knows it works, and two of the distribution centers that have the highest percentage of people with disabilities are not coincidentally the highest performing ones. It’s a good thing to do for the employees, for their families, and in a business sense. And it’s a good thing to do for our shareholders and the bottom line.

Randy told me that Walgreens’ success gained the attention of other companies. Over the years, more than 500 have visited and attended a boot camp where managers learn details of the program.

Many big retailers, including Meijer, Lowe’s, and OfficeMax, have adopted the program. You can learn more about its success – and Randy’s book, No Greatness Without Goodness – on this week’s Celebrations Chatter podcast.

Celebrations Chatter graphic Randy Lewis

A positive outcome

It’s rare in the business world for competitors to band together, and that gesture of goodwill – and doing the right thing – touched Randy and Austin personally.

When Randy began the program at Walgreens, his family lived in the Chicago suburbs, nowhere near any of the company’s distribution centers. One day, Randy got a call from Rick Keyes, who is now CEO of grocery store retailer Meijer. 

He told me they are getting ready to build a distribution center on the Illinois border of Wisconsin, not far from where we live. Rick said that if he could get there, they had a job for Austin. He’s been working there now for nine years, and he has perfect attendance, so there is such a thing as serendipity.

These success stories show the world the power of people with disabilities. When they are given an opportunity to use their skills, they prosper. If you own a business, I hope this letter inspires you to reach out, connect with, and support people who are differently abled in your community.

All the best,

Celebrating the rituals of Easter

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Today is Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week, seven days of rituals that commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. For many, the week starts with today’s processions and distribution of blessed palms and continues with foot washing on Holy Thursday and visiting the stations of the cross on Good Friday.

All the rituals – whether rooted in thousands of years of history or in family tradition – help us renew connections with our faiths and each other. Easter serves as a reminder to reflect on the renewal of faith and its personal significance. It’s also a time to contemplate relationships and the people who hold importance in our lives.

I’d like to hear from you. What are some Easter traditions within your family, community, or church? Send them to me for a chance to be featured in a special Easter edition of the Celebrations Pulse next week and to be selected to win a basket of Easter treats from the 1-800-Flowers.com family of brands.

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Jim McCann is the founder, CEO, and chairman of 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc. as well as a business leader, author, and philanthropist with a passion for helping people deliver smiles. Devoted to helping others, he also founded Smile Farms, a 501(c)3 organization that provides meaningful jobs in agricultural settings to young adults and adults with developmental disabilities.

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