In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one essential worker with a heart for people and a woman in need found an everlasting friendship under dire circumstances.
As the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the area in mid-March, grocery stores were a scene of sheer panic. Empty shelves and swarms of shoppers heightened stress, especially for the senior citizens who were most vulnerable to the new virus.
While stores like Walmart, Target and Dollar General offered senior shopping hours during the pandemic, it had not been an option for the Huntsville H-E-B. Although the Texas grocery chain had partnered with Favor, their delivery services only reached the two Huntsville zip codes, leaving many customers in Trinity and the surrounding communities on their own.
An outpouring of elderly customers, especially those in the surrounding communities, called in with concerns over being able to get groceries for themselves. However, HEB Service Director Joey Peyton came up with an idea similar to their curbside option, that would be easier for less-than tech savvy seniors to get what they need.
The grocery store opened a tent with a sign, letting their elderly customers know that the store could take small call-in orders, complete the shopping for them and take their groceries out to their car without them having to get out.
“I know that if my grandma needed groceries, she’s not going to know how to get on (the app) and do curbside delivery and pick up, she barely knows how to use her touch tone phone at the house, much less use a smartphone with an app,” Peyton said.
Trinity’s Phyllis Clark was one of the first customers to take part in the new senior assistance program after fate put her in touch with Peyton during one of the most stressful days of her life.
On top of being an insulin dependent diabetic for 30 years, Clark’s husband was diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer on March 23. Clark worried about being able to safely get her husband everything that he needed for his strict dietary needs on top of her world suddenly being turned upside down in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.
“It hit me all at once and I just broke down and started crying that day,” Clark said.
Early on in the pandemic, overcrowded grocery stores were wiped out and wait times were extensive. Having to quarantine for her husband’s safety between trips to M.D. Anderson and downtown Houston’s treatment centers, Clark was unsure as to how she would be able to make it to the store during normal pick-up times.
“She just immediately gave me a reason or purpose for why we were doing what we were doing, due to her story and her circumstance, it just completely stole my heart,” Peyton said. “I just knew that Phyllis needed us. I could tell the amount of stress that she was under. I could tell that she was very concerned, she was very worried about her husband and what he was going through.”
“It was in my heart where I just had to tell her, ‘you give me your list, and I will make it happen. You don’t need to worry about this, you don’t need to stress about it, you don’t need to think about it, we will make this happen for you,’” Peyton said.
Her 10 item lists quickly grew to 50 item lists that Peyton completed for her weekly.
“For me it was a no-brainer, it wasn’t even a question whether we should be doing it … I don’t think she realizes how much it actually did for me when she thinks it was all really being done for her. This is obviously a really stressful time for us as essential workers, but she reiterated the fact of what my purpose was and why I came to work to take care of not just my partners, but our customers too everyday,” Peyton said.
With a heart to serve and growing up as the second oldest of seven siblings in a broken home, Peyton strives to advocate for those in need, and H-E-B gives him the opportunity to do so.
Throughout his 13 years with H-E-B, Peyton has taken it upon himself to go above and beyond what was expected of him. He has helped those that simply couldn’t afford their groceries, customers that are looking for creative ways to do their shopping, put items on hold and personally delivered orders to people’s homes. Through the pandemic, when toilet paper was nearly impossible to find, Peyton even helped elderly customers know when shipments were coming in and set aside a few rolls for them.
“I know what it’s like, I just think that taking care of people and being a decent human being, that’s kind of my slogan,” Peyton said. “At the end of the day, it’s what can I do to take care of somebody, how do you make somebody’s day, how do you make somebody smile.”
Clark ended up being just as much of a help to Peyton as he was to her. Her friendship and weekly correspondence eased a stressful time for him as an essential worker.
“I would get on the phone with her and I couldn’t get off for an hour, she would just talk and she would make me so happy and she would take so much stress away from me,” Peyton said.
Her words of positive encouragement instilled a sense of pride in him that he was doing the right thing and kept him motivated from day to day.
“My life is completely different at work than it has been in the 13 years I’ve been at H-E-B, so just knowing that a customer is telling me that I’m doing something right, gave me that push to keep going and helping more.”
Clark has since gotten set up with curbside, however Peyton still checks in with her from time to time.
“A lot of time, we come to work thinking you’re just going to take care of customers, earn your paycheck, and throughout my 13 years, Phyllis is an example of one where she’s not just a customer now, she’s somebody I’ll remember for the rest of my life because of her story alone, but just knowing that I was able to help her and take some of that stress away during this probably most stressful time of her life,” Peyton said.
“If he hadn’t done what he did for me that day, I probably would have collapsed,” Clark said. “My whole world turned upside down that day, and what Joey did for me that day changed everything … he was made special.”