The folks over at CVS Pharmacy aren’t so busy filling prescriptions that they don’t have time to get in their charitable work. With their CVS Caremark All Kids Can program, they have committed more than $2 million in 2006 and 2007 to Boundless Playgrounds, offering children of all abilities accessible places nationwide to play and frolic. CVS’s charitable trust also writes big checks to schools and non-profit organizations that serve children with disabilities. In 2008, they joined forces with Very Special Arts to underwrite the cost of placing artists-in-residence at schools nationwide, adding a bold splash of color to an area of education that had become terribly faded in recent years. And that’s just for starters…
Recently, Chet Cooper, ABILITY’s editor-in-chief, sat down with Eileen Howard Dunn, vice president of corporate communications and community relations for CVS, to chat about this Rhode Island-based corporation, its 190,000 employees across 40 states, and why they do the things they do.
Chet Cooper: How did children with disabilities become your focus?
Eileen Howard Dunn: It was always clear to us that we could make a difference in the lives of children, especially those with disabilities. We said, “OK, where do we want to focus?” Children with disabilities is a very broad area. Ultimately, we settled on programs, such as Easter Seals, that would help them learn, play and succeed.
Learn means helping kids be the very best they can be. For example, it might mean giving them adaptive technologies in school to enhance learning in the best way possible. For the play component, we would build playgrounds. For the succeed component, we provide medical rehabilitation and related services to kids with disabilities.
Cooper: How did you go after your goals to help children learn, play and succeed?
Howard Dunn: In part through our partnerships, where we reach out to kids and their families. We call one of our programs All Kids Can, which emphasizes one of our main themes: inclusion. It’s not just for children with disabilities, it also makes an impact on typically developed children as well, so they, too, can see that there are no barriers, that every child has an opportunity to succeed and have fun.
We developed accessible playgrounds where everyone—including a child with a walker or a wheelchair— can get to the top of the play structure, because that’s what life’s all about. We engage our national, regional and local partners, and our employees to drive awareness to these issues. When a company such as ours helps Easter Seals or Special Olympics, for instance, they benefit and we benefit.
Cooper: Is there some way to measure the impact of all these intangibles?
Howard Dunn: Absolutely. We have criteria to measure results to determine if it’s a good program or not. What we do is ask the affiliates to come up with the programs, each of which goes through a whole granting process. They ask, “What demographic are we serving? How many people will we impact? At what level?” The specifics. And then there’s a review process. My hope is that at the end of five years we’ll be able to say, “We affected this many people’s lives.” Already there are probably hundreds or perhaps thousands of stories of people whose lives we’ve touched without our even knowing it.
At one of our annual sales meetings for All Kids Can, the wife of one of our regional managers in the Indianapolis market told a story about one of the mothers she’d met. The woman was single with three children, two of whom are autistic. Both boys went to a camp that we sponsored. The boys’ mother said that it was a wonderful summer for her because she had a rare chance to decompress. We thought the story was even better because we didn’t solicit it.
Cooper: It’s easy to forget about the impact that disabilities can have on a family.
Howard Dunn: Whether a child has Asperger’s or cerebral palsy, or they’re in a wheelchair, our hope is that we can make some small, but meaningful difference in their lives. Because raising a child is an interesting path. I have five children myself.
Cooper: Really, I would have thought you had six.
Howard Dunn: (laughs) I’m the oldest of six. Being a parent is one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had in my whole life. I’m probably going to well up because I feel blessed that I’m a mother and can raise these five kids and hopefully help them be the best they can be. I want that for children with disabilities as well, because it’s tough being a kid period.
On ABC TV’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE), one of the families we helped was a husband and wife with four children who all have a rare childhood blood disease, which essentially makes them highly allergic to a lot of different things. Two of the children use feeding tubes. Their antibodies react to food like it’s a virus and they kill it. So they have a variety of issues and illnesses. When the father couldn’t get answers about what was wrong with his children or how to cure them, he decided to go to medical school. So he had education bills, on top of the mortgage and other expenses. So EMHE redid the family’s house. What we did was pay the kids’ medical bills and cover the father’s medical school expenses, so that he could have a chance to care for his kids without the pressures. Their new home even has a pharmacy inside because the children need a lot of injections.
Cooper: Is it a CVS pharmacy?
Howard Dunn: (laughs) We’ve done two EMHE shows that help families, and we’ve two to go. For one of them, we built a playground in the backyard because their child is in a wheelchair. The shows have not only resonated with our employees, but also with our customers. We’ve received thousands of appreciative emails.
Cooper: You must love your job.
Howard Dunn: Honestly, it is truly one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life.
Cooper: I know EMHE uses volunteers, but what about Boundless?
Howard Dunn: We solicit volunteers from our local market to help, but we also have full-time staff assigned to the playgrounds. Then our eight-person advisory council gives us their best insights into what’s going on in the disability and child-development areas. They point out where things are working well and where they could be better.
For instance, the advisory council told us: “You should really think about art, because it’s one of those things that’s not physically bound. You can do music and art at any level and be in a wheelchair, in a walker…”
Cooper: Put a paintbrush in your mouth and paint away.
Howard Dunn: Right. So we have a great partnership with them.
Cooper: Are you familiar with our non-profit, ABILITY Awareness?
Howard Dunn: I’m familiar with the magazine.
Cooper: We started ABILITY Awareness in 1995. We build houses for families with disabilities using volunteers with disabilities to build the house. It changes the paradigm of what it means to have a disability.
We had Ty Pennington on the cover of a recent issue. We talked with his people about bringing our program into their program. Our typical partner is Habitat for Humanity. Generally our first order of business is to train the local affiliate about what’s going to happen, because many of them freak out when we come in and say, “We’re gonna have a bunch of people with disabilities build a home.”
Howard Dunn: (laughs) It’s not what they expected.
Cooper: Right. They think: “My foreman got injured and is on disability, now he can’t work. How are you going to—?” So we have to educate people about what “disability” means, the fact is we can train almost anyone to help on a project. We may have to lower a platform, for instance, to make the site wheelchair accessible, but there’s usually something that can be done.
We wanted to bring that model into the volunteer base for playgrounds, too, so that volunteers with disabilities could help build accessible playgrounds.
Howard Dunn: We should talk about that as an opportunity, because Boundless is building playgrounds all across the county.
Cooper: I think Kirk Douglass has also funded over 500 playgrounds.
Howard Dunn: Wow, that’s a lot… You know, one of our advisory council members explained to me that there are four stages of play development during which you learn important life skills. Of course, I made the sarcastic comment that I knew people who had missed a few steps. But yes, these steps are apparently critically important to a child’s development.
Cooper: I’ve never heard of that.
Howard Dunn: Oh, my God, it’s fascinating. You understand how the roles of cooperation as well as feelings of isolation start to show up in children. As the oldest of six, I had my built-in network growing up. Same with my kids. They do the jungle gym and follow each other. So my four-year-old is almost as good as my eight-year-old. I have three boys in the middle, two girl bookends. My four-year-old is getting almost as good as the eight-yearold, and at a much faster pace, because he’s following in the footsteps of his brothers. My 18-month-old is already doing things that have me saying, “Are you kidding me?”
It’s the socialization factor. My youngest is a much more social child than my first child, because she’s got four brothers and sisters who are constantly talking and chatting with her. But it’s also the family dynamic. One of the reasons why we built the playground for the family in Vermont in the last episode of EMHE was because the mom was having challenges bringing her son to the playground. Now he has his own playground in his backyard, where he can get wheeled to the top of the play structure. That’s an invite-your-friends-over kind of opportunity. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. So it’s not just an individual child, it’s a social network.
Cooper: I grew up in a woodsy, rural area, so everywhere we went was a playground. I was trying to think of those four development steps. I probably missed some myself.
Howard Dunn: (laughs) You probably hit them all, just in a different way. Another one of the great aspects of All Kids Can is that it’s not one thing. We try to make the program as a la carte as possible. Each of our folks is different. They all have special qualities, and they relate to the programs at a different level. If a store or a regional group wants to do a regional exercise, they can do that or they can volunteer at any of our schools, taking it at their own pace. We don’t say, “If you want to participate in All Kids, you have to do this.” It’s more like, “Here are some choices and opportunities for you.”
Cooper: How do you determine with whom you want to partner?
Howard Dunn: We’re a big company and a lot of people come to us and say, “Can you help support our mission?” When we consider an organization, we start with considering how inclusive their concept is. It doesn’t have to be typically developing—it doesn’t have to be a ‘child with a disability’ program. If we have a pre-existing school program that we supported through All Kids Can, we’d go to them and say, “OK, you need to help us help you. Can we develop a program that drives inclusion? You don’t have to have the facility for children with disabilities today, but can you down the line? Will you? Will you start thinking about that? Do you have the means to support that?” Those are the types of conversations we have to have with potential partners.
Cooper: What are some of the challenges you face with your own children?
Howard Dunn: Well, most recently, one of my sons and one of my daughters decided to take guitar at the same time, so I’m nervous that they’ll compete against each other.
Cooper: Could it turn out that they’ll work as a team?
Howard Dunn: These two are very good friends, but they’re both very competitive. My son has got big fat fingers, which poses a challenge with the strings. My daughter has much thinner fingers. He’s got the rhythm, but she’s got the fingers. He’s starting lessons with a different teacher. It’ll definitely be interesting.
Cooper: Sometimes kids can be a handful… So, what was it that drew you to Special Olympics?
Howard Dunn: It’s always goes back to inclusion. What I love most about the Special Olympics is the looks on these kids’ faces when they compete, cross the finish line and get their medals.
Every year in Rhode Island, All Kids Can participates in our state’s largest road race. I think last year we had 7,000 winners. This is another example of a program that we’ve converted to be inclusive. Rhode Island Facility Alliance, Special Olympics and a lot of our schools with disability programs participate and give us all the runners and athletes. You’ve got some children who are assisted and just plugging through. We had one guy this year who was rolling himself along, and he was determined not to stop. One person said to him, “Do you want some help?” while another said to him, “I’ll push you,” and he was like, “No! It’s my race and I’m doing it!” You should have heard the thunderous applause he got when he crossed the finish line.
It makes a world of difference to be able to find new ways to extend the All Kids Can program to the next market. I couldn’t have written a better story if I tried.