Posted on July 10, 2023
Something has been brewing at Sheetz besides coffee these past few years. It isn’t anything that can be purchased at the store’s nearly 700 locations in six states. It is, however, proving to have inestimable value – and like coffee, a stimulating effect.
Three and a half years ago, Sheetz, the Altoona, Pennsylvania-based, family-owned convenience store chain, launched its Store Team Helper pilot program, a customized employment initiative that is giving men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) an opportunity to gain meaningful work with the company. Penn-Mar Human Services has been part of the program from the start.
The Store Team Helper
We originally shared news of the pilot program through a story about Brian Honeychuck, who in July of 2021, was the first Store Team Helper to be hired in York County through Penn-Mar. Two years on, Brian continues to hold down his part-time job at Sheetz’s Queen Street location in York and has become a valuable member of the team.
“Brian has gained so much and grown so much in these past two years,” said Sheetz General Manager Lisa Reichow, who hired Brian, and is a firm advocate of the Store Team Helper program. “For me, as a manager, it’s always something that I love to see, whoever it is, to watch them grow, it just melts the heart.”
Stephen Martynuska, a human services and customized employment consultant, was brought on by Sheetz as a consultant back in 2019 to develop the Store Team Helper initiative, which was launched in Blair County, where Sheetz is headquartered, and then expanded into York County.
The initiative is part of Sheetz’s company-wide strategic plan and policy of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (I.D.E.A.). Penn-Mar and other employment provider agencies, as well as the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation district offices, play a key role in helping provide Sheetz with potential applicants who want to work and have the skills, abilities, and interests to fill customized positions that best match the needs of the organization and its store locations. Agencies also provide valuable on-the-job support, like job coaching, on-site reviews, and regular check-ins with the individuals hired.
“Sheetz views providers as the experts in helping support the person in their new jobs,” said Stephen. “So, we look to them to be the key networker of the Sheetz employee. We truly encourage ongoing communication with the providers to help us better support the Brians of the world to be successful in the workplace.”
Expanding beyond Pennsylvania
The Store Team Helper program is still in its pilot phase, Stephen noted. “We’re evaluating all our resources to figure out how to further expand the initiative beyond Blair and York Counties, and the state, something I’m very excited about.”
Stacy Alleman, Sheetz Employee Relations Supervisor, who has been involved with the program for the past two years, is also excited about the prospect of expansion and said that other states are asking to implement the Store Team Helper program. The only challenge is how to connect with employment provider agencies in the other states Sheetz operates.
“Stephen has been a wonderful resource for us in connecting with agencies in Pennsylvania, but it’s a little more difficult to connect with agencies in other states as we’re not familiar with them,” Stacy said. “Saying that, we do have district managers willing to help us look into similar agencies in their areas. I can foresee that it will be well received.”
So far 20 people have been hired through the Store Team Helper program at Sheetz locations in Blair and York Counties. In addition, two individuals were hired to work in Sheetz’s distribution center on its corporate campus in Claysburg, Pa.
“I’ve successfully filled positions at every store that I’ve had an opportunity to work with in the York area,” said Tricia Zeltwanger, Penn-Mar Career Counselor and Job Developer, who jumped on the initiative when it was first presented to her by Stephen. “Sheetz is open to job customization one hundred percent, and stores have been open to working with us, where it makes logistical sense. It’s been very easy transitioning people into employment with the company.”
Benefits of the program are already being seen, and a customer survey conducted last year found that scores for friendliness and cleanliness were above the corporate average at stores with Store Team Helpers. The program has also seen turnover rates for this position that are well below what is the norm for other hourly positions in Sheetz stores.
“There is high turnover in convenience retailers in general, however in the Store Team Helper position the turnover has been very low which is exciting to see,” said Stacy. “We are getting good candidates. They are enjoying their jobs, they’re doing their jobs well, and the stores enjoy having them.”
Benefits to the Store Team Helpers themselves go well beyond just being paid, noted Stephen.
“They are truly part of the community, and among people, their colleagues and customers, who are not paid to be around them,” said Stephen. “Brian for example is in a work environment where he’s part of a work family and gets to know his coworkers and maybe gets invited to a graduation or birthday party. They are forming friendships like everyone else.”
Brian’s mother Maureen can’t say enough positive things about Sheetz and the collaborative nature of the program. She appreciates how flexible and understanding Sheetz has been with her son and is grateful for Penn-Mar’s support of Brian on the job, notably through Job Coach Wyatt Malone.
“I applaud Sheetz for this initiative, and Lisa has been incredible,” Maureen said. “She has a really good instinct for how to work with Brian and has been a great advocate. Brian really appreciates her too.”
Maureen summed it all up when she said that it makes for a healthier society when Brian gets out, goes to work and is part of the community.
“It’s hard to quantify, but our community is richer for it.”