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After 'botch,' Walmart moves to keep disabled greeters

Walmart endured more than a week’s worth of bad publicity before announcing it would make “every effort” to find a role for disabled workers who had been threatened with job loss as the retailer gets rid of greeters at 1,000 stores.

Amid a fierce backlash, Greg Foran, president and CEO of Walmart’s U.S. stores, said in a memo to store managers Thursday night that “we are taking some specific steps to support” greeters with disabilities. Several greeters were offered new jobs at their respective stores on Friday and accepted.

Advocates for the disabled said Walmart is making the right move.

“By rethinking their action, Walmart is now opening the door to actually help individuals realize their full employment potential,” said Cheryl Bates-Harris, senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network.

Walmart told greeters around the country last week that their positions were being eliminated in late April in favor of an expanded “customer host” role that involves not only welcoming customers, but also helping with returns, checking receipts to help prevent shoplifting and keeping the front of the store clean. The position requires hosts to be able to lift heavy weights, climb ladders and do other tasks.

People with disabilities who have traditionally filled the greeter job at many stores accused Walmart of acting heartlessly. Outraged customers and others started online petitions, formed Facebook support groups, and called and emailed Walmart corporate offices in Bentonville, Arkansas, to register their displeasure.

“This was a major-league botch,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy, adding that Walmart should have foreseen the public’s reaction.

“Someone finally woke up,” Johnson said. “Hopefully they’re now woke and they’ll fix this thing the right way. ... The good news is it’s reversible.”

Foran acknowledged the change from greeter to host, and its impact on disabled workers, had “created some conversation.” He wrote that Walmart was committed to doing right by these employees, noting that greeters with disabilities would be given longer than the customary 60 days to find other jobs in the company.

“Let me be clear: If any associate in this unique situation wants to continue working at Walmart, we should make every effort to make that happen,” said his memo, which Walmart released publicly.

Walmart has already started making job offers to the greeters. At least three longtime greeters — Adam Catlin in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, Jay Melton in Marion, North Carolina, and Mitchell Hartzell in Hazel Green, Florida, all of whom have cerebral palsy — have accepted jobs in self-checkout.

Catlin’s mother, Holly Catlin, helped call public attention to her son’s plight with an impassioned Facebook post and has since advocated for greeters around the country. After emailing Walmart CEO Doug McMillon every day, Catlin got a call from the corporate office on Thursday, and on Friday morning she and her son met with store management in Selinsgrove.

“I decided I was going to be the squeaky wheel and squeak every day,” Catlin said, adding she’s encouraged by Walmart’s recent moves. “I believe the path forward is going to be good for these people. I think they’re really going to make an effort and try to keep these people.”

In North Carolina, Melton is “happier than a pig in a mud puddle,” said his father, Jim Melton.

Foran, who heads Walmart’s U.S. stores, wrote that greeters with disabilities “face a unique situation ... and each case requires a thoughtful solution.” He said that Walmart’s goal is to offer “appropriate accommodations that will enable these associates to continue in other roles with their store.”

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'Act like a man': 200 Waco ISD boys attend empowerment summit
 Brooke Crum  / 

Being a man is not about strength or speed but the character one exhibits, said Dr. Jeremy Korteweg, the keynote speaker at Waco Independent School District’s second annual Empowerment Summit for Young Men on Friday.

About 200 male students in grades seven through 12 who campus administrators identified as future leaders attended the event at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. The school district will hold a similar event for girls March 8.

Korteweg, a physician at the Family Health Center’s Martin Luther King Jr. Community Clinic, talked about various challenges boys face as they grow into men, including societal pressures to “act like a man,” sexual violence, consent, pornography and respecting women.

University High School junior Daiaundrea London-Ridge said he found the panel discussion with five community leaders to be inspiring.

“It was really inspiring, hearing everybody tell their different stories and how they came from difficult backgrounds and how they came to find their success,” he said. “It made me put my life into perspective and think about how little actions today can shape my success in the future.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson (from right), incoming Waco City Councilman Hector Sabido and Extraco Banks Vice President Sam Brown gather before the event.

The panel featured Extraco Banks Vice President Sam Brown; Kerry Burkley, a Baptist pastor and children’s program director at the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children; Hector Sabido, Inspiracion board chairman and incoming Waco City Council District 2 member; and Alfred Solano, Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.

Waco High School junior Jordan Fuller said he related to the speakers and learned how to approach different situations.

“It made me realize my future is not too far away,” he said. “It’s coming up faster than I know it, and I need to start planning for what’s going to happen.”

As a doctor, Korteweg wanted to provide the students with answers to questions they may not want to ask and information about health issues they may face as teenagers, he said.

“Being a leader today isn’t about doing something crazy and amazing or necessarily changing the world,” Korteweg said. “It’s about being a part of where you are, doing your part to lead. Leadership is at the center of solid character and manhood.”

Making good decisions is integral to being a good leader and sustaining one’s character, he said. But as teenagers, boys think mostly with the part of their brains, the amygdala, that controls emotions, unlike adults over age 25, who use their prefrontal cortex more in decision making. The challenge is to use the prefrontal cortex, which allows for critical thinking, when making decisions instead of relying solely on one’s emotions.

“There’s a lot of information being sent out to your phones, to your tablets and through your screens that’s telling you hidden messages about how you are to act as a man,” Korteweg said. “They’re sending messages to you, and they’re working your brain to change the way that you think about yourself. Most of the time, they’re sending messages because they want something from you.”

Advertisers send these messages to make money, and students ought to think about where these messages are coming from and decode their contents before buying what they are selling, he said.

For instance, boys should consider where the idea that men need multiple sexual partners to “be a man” comes from, Korteweg said. He then showed a video of former President Barack Obama talking about the same topic.

“If you are comfortable with your sexuality, then you don’t need eight women around you twerking,” Obama said in the video.

Korteweg also discussed pornography and the toll it takes on men and women. On average, boys are exposed to pornography by age 11, he said. Korteweg said he first saw pornography when he was 10 while playing video games with other boys at his pastor’s house.

“You’re feeding into an industry that destroys millions and millions of lives,” he said. “I challenge you as men to respect women.”

That led into a discussion on consent, in which Korteweg said that women can say “no” at any time and revoke their consent to have sex or participate in sexual activity. He emphasized how important it is to talk to sexual partners before engaging in sex, with help from some photos of herpes sores and the physical effects of syphilis. The audience responded with a collective “ew.”

Korteweg concluded his speech by challenging the boys to use their prefrontal cortex. Several of the community leaders and professionals who volunteered as table hosts stood up and offered advice to the students.

“You have every opportunity right now to be whoever you want to be. You have every opportunity to fulfill your dreams,” said Brad Livingstone, a teacher at Vanguard College Preparatory School and husband of Baylor University President Linda Livingstone. “That’s one of the great things about being a teacher. That’s one of the great things about being here today, looking at you and knowing someday you’re going to change the world. Someday, you’re going to make a difference in the life of others.”

Former Art Center of Waco building facing demolition without rescuer
 Carl Hoover  / 

The days of the Cameron House, the former location of the Art Center of Waco, likely are numbered unless a donor with deep pockets and good will steps forward, McLennan Community College officials said.

The three-story structure, the summer home of the William Waldo Cameron family in the early decades of the 20th century, has not had an occupant since October 2017, when a sagging floor support beam forced the Art Center of Waco to evacuate it until repairs could be made. The art center’s lease was expiring soon anyway, and it decided to pursue a new home base.

McLennan Community College, which owns the 30,000 square-foot house and its surrounding property, has estimated tearing down the facility will cost more than $150,000. Repairing the wall, foundation and plumbing work could cost up to $400,000 with a full renovation approaching $4 million.

MCC President Johnette McKown told MCC board members this week that administrators could find no instructional or education purpose served by the building’s renovation. Other potential uses, such as meeting space, reception facilities or offices for the MCC Foundation, are already being met by other buildings on campus, McKown said.

In the months that followed the Art Center’s departure, the center’s board opted to look for a new location in downtown Waco rather than repair the Cameron House. Board and staff members found a former brick day care center at 701 S. Eighth St. that it secured to renovate for a new home.

McLennan Community College had leased the Cameron House on the edge of its campus to the center for more than 40 years for $10 a year, while also paying for utilities. That lease expired in September 2018, and MCC had no intention to continue the lease on those terms had the art center stayed, McKown said in a interview later in the week.

The Cameron family that originally used the building donated land to the city of Waco to make Cameron Park, which is close to the house. While the house is about a century old, its interior long has been stripped of anything historical, with numerous reworkings of rooms for art lessons, creation, exhibition, education and meetings, McKown said. Despite its connection to a major family in Waco’s history, it does not have a state historical marker and is not on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We have institutional needs, but none of them fit in that space,” McKown said. Some of the school’s donors and supporters who had backed MCC projects in the past were less than persuaded that funding Cameron House repairs would meet the school’s future needs, she said.

MCC trustees, in fact, recently approved revenue bonds for a $6.2 million renovation of the Business Technology Building, built in 1968. The project includes a reworking of classroom and office space, exterior improvements and a metal roof.

While the college is not inclined to repair and renovate the Cameron House, administrators would be willing to hear others’ proposals as long as they do not depend on money from the college.

“We can’t leave it vacant forever … (but) we want to make sure we haven’t overlooked anybody,” McKown said. “I say this with great sadness, but (the house) might have to go away.”

News that MCC does not intend to renovate the Cameron House is understandable, if a little sad, Art Center of Waco Director Claire Sexton said.

“We’re not terribly surprised … but we had kind of hoped that MCC could renovate it,” Sexton said.

Art Center supporters have raised a little more than a third of the almost $2.5 million needed to buy and renovate the Eighth Street building and a neighboring house for temporary offices, that later will be used for artist living and working space, she said.

Sexton said she hopes work on the house fronting Ninth Street can be completed soon for a summertime move of the center’s offices temporarily at the Cultivate 7twelve gallery on Austin Avenue. Once backers raise the money to finish paying off the property acquisition plus 50 to 60 percent of estimated construction costs, renovation of the 701 S. Eighth St. building will start, likely next year, she said.

The center also intends to move its Sculpture Walk artworks outside the Cameron House to the downtown location, including the towering “Waco Door” by Robert Wilson and Bill Verhelst’s gray concrete “Heartfelt Space,” Sexton said.

Table Toppers, the center’s annual fundraiser, scheduled for March 21 at McLane Stadium’s Baylor Club, will encourage donors to give to the center’s endowment, building fund or annual operations budget.

The Historic Waco Foundation, the city’s most visible organization for historic preservation, maintains and operates five historic houses, four of which are older than the Cameron House.

Historic Waco Foundation Executive Director Jill Barrow said no one has yet approached the foundation about the possibility the organization might buy it or work to save it. That would be a decision for the foundation’s board, Barrow said.

McKown said anyone interested in saving the Cameron House could contact her or Stephen Benson, vice president of finance and administration.

Rachel Wasser photo 

Walmart greeter John Combs, who has cerebral palsy, works at a Walmart store in Vancouver, Wash., on April 21.

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Contractor gearing up for Waco I-35 overhaul

The Woodlands-based general contractor charged with a $341 million reconstruction of Interstate 35 through Waco is gearing up to start construction toward the end of next month.

“We know this is a priority project for TxDOT,” said Josh Goyne, president of Webber LLC’s heavy civil division. “We know this is something that the residents in the area are very concerned with. I think we will do everything we can to work with TxDOT to make sure we execute the project as quickly as we can and try to minimize the impact to the local public.”

Webber’s contract for the project, covering a 6.7-mile stretch from the north end of Loop 340 to 12th Street, is the largest the company has won through a bid process since it was founded in 1963, according to the company.

Webber officials had been tracking the project for quite some time as they awaited the opportunity to place a bid, Goyne said.

“It’s a large, high-profile project, a project that really fits us well with where our major resources are located with offices in Dallas, Austin and Houston,” he said. “We like the larger projects.”

Goyne said the company has experience with projects similar to the one planned for Waco, but this one is just a little bigger.

“This is a large project for TxDOT and for us,” he said. “I think that it was a project we studied. With all the different traffic movements and things like that we just felt like that was a good project to go after.”

The company plans to seek out local subcontractors and hire from the local labor pool, said Nick Wolf, who will serve as Webber’s area manager. The project could call for hiring 75 to 100 people over the duration, Wolf said.

TxDOT has planned for the work to accommodate increased truck traffic coupled with regional population growth creating a travel demand that exceeds the interstate’s capacity.

The project includes bridge replacements and layout changes, addition of a main travel lane in both directions, reconstruction of existing frontage roads, installation of more than 132,000 linear feet of reinforced concrete box culverts and pipe, and utility and landscaping work.

Work and lane closures will take place during restricted hours to minimize the impact to travelers and local businesses.

During a November public meeting, TxDOT Waco District Engineer Stan Swiatek said the contract would include $15 million in initiatives, including for meeting incremental deadlines, to keep the project on schedule.

Work is scheduled to take about 46 months, with substantial completion expected in Spring 2023.

Wolf said the company has worked on projects with similar incentive plans before.

“We think the incentive-based project fit us well because of the priority to get the project done as quickly as possible,” Wolf said. “That fits our culture very well.”

TxDOT Waco District spokesman Ken Roberts said the state looks forward to working with Webber over the next few years.

“TxDOT is pleased with the selection of a company with a reputation of such high-level professionalism and quality of work, for this project,” Roberts said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Baylor center Kalani Brown shoots over West Virginia center Theresa Ekhelar.