Dylan Dreifke counts his successes in doughnuts.

Every time Dreifke, 27, earns another Homer patch — the award Home Depot gives to associates who provide excellent customer service — his job coach brings him a doughnut.

He recently got a chocolate number, complete with chocolate frosting and sprinkles, in honor of the eighth patch he’ll add to a ring on his orange apron.

“I like to help people find things,” Dreifke said.

With limited speech because of cerebral palsy, he uses an app on a specially programmed iPad that talks for him through a remote speaker.

In his motorized wheelchair, Dreifke crisscrosses the 54 aisles of the football-field-sized warehouse store, on alert for customers who look confused or daunted by the thousands of items crammed on shelves.

He approaches them and punches a button with a preprogrammed phrase to greet them and initiate a conversation.

“Hi, I use this iPad for speech. Can I help you find something?” the speaker intones, while Dreifke offers a smile.

On a recent day, a woman asked to find the paper yard leaf bags, a popular seller during fall cleanup season.

Dreifke pushed another button. As the electronic baritone from his speaker said, “Follow me,” he pivoted in his wheelchair and cruised toward the item.

“Dylan comes to work with a positive attitude and a smile on his face. He’s here to help customers and have fun,” said Home Depot assistant manager Doug Wentzel. “We constantly ask our customers for feedback, and Dylan is often mentioned in our surveys for his outstanding service.”

Before Dreifke started his customer service job at the Bloomington Home Depot in May 2015, he worked for several weeks with Nancy Grayson, his job developer at Opportunity Partners, a Minnetonka-based nonprofit that assists people with disabilities find and keep community-based employment.

Dreifke studied the Home Depot inventory and memorized the location of the most commonly requested items. Then, Grayson quizzed him: Which aisle has hammers? Fertilizer? Toilet flappers?

“Dylan has a fantastic memory, and he when he was hired, he came in ready to go,” she said. “Home Depot snapped him up when they saw what he could do. His knowledge of items in the store has only deepened with his experience on the floor.”

Dreifke also programmed other phrases into his iPad, including, “This item is available online only,” “I’m helping another customer, I will come back and help you,” and “To get keys made, please go to cash register 11.”

And he’s prepared to offer customers the chance to save $50 by setting up a Home Depot credit card.

“I get a lot of people signed up,” Dreifke said.

He works 20 hours most weeks, earning the same wage as his co-workers. His favorite indulgence on payday is sharp new sneakers.

Changing attitudes and technology have facilitated Dreifke’s employment, but the people who work with him credit his personality for his success.

“With that million-dollar smile, Dylan is a natural for customer service,” Grayson said. “He’s pushing his limits, and look what he’s achieved.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.