Some time in late December, Jacqueline Dowell, an 82-year-old customer of the Grand Rapids Target, noticed that the shopping carts in the store’s parking lot were in disarray. Then she noted that the perpetually positive, always friendly 17-year “cart guy,” Aaron Itkonen, wasn’t there to greet her.
Dowell quickly learned that Itkonen had been let go because of inappropriate conduct and sent home on Christmas Eve.
What happened next is a testimony to a community’s willingness to understand people with disabilities and to embrace their unique characteristics, rather than shun them.
“This man has been a gift to the Grand Rapids area community,” said Pam Dowell, Jacqueline’s daughter. “He had become the face of Target. If you’d ask anyone if they knew anyone who worked at Target, they’d say, ‘that cart guy, Aaron.’ ”
So Pam Dowell quickly became Aaron’s advocate. She looked into the reasons for his dismissal and even scoured his 17 years of job reviews. He had been fired because of two customer complaints. One customer said he had suggested that she go skinny-dipping and mentioned he lived on a lake, according to a report. Another customer said he was “stalking” her in the store.
Most of the shoppers knew that Aaron was different and that his social skills were a little unusual. Though not diagnosed, Aaron is thought to have mild autism or Asperger’s syndrome, and exhibits some of the characteristics. He asks people their names and personal information, and he remembers it. He doesn’t catch social cues that someone might be uncomfortable. He even invited shoppers to his wedding.
“He thinks everyone he’s ever met is his friend,” said Dowell. “Most want to be, some don’t.”
Target is in a rotten spot here because privacy laws don’t allow staff to comment on Aaron’s dismissal, and a spokesman said only that the company works to be inclusive.
But this isn’t a story of who is right, but rather a story of how a guy who wrangles carts made such an impact on people’s lives.
Aaron denies he ever asked anyone to go skinny-dipping. Dowell thinks he might have invited the customer to go swimming, and that he was simply trying to be extra helpful to the person who accused him of following her in the store.
In 17 years, Aaron, 39, had few complaints, Dowell said, and his job reviews were filled with praise for his work ethic. “You would have a hard time finding someone who would be as fine of a cart attendant as Aaron,” said Dowell. “He was very proud of what he did.”
After hearing of Aaron’s job loss, Dowell set up a Facebook page to support and celebrate Aaron. In no time the site had 2,300 “likes” and had interactions with as many as 23,000 people, almost all of them positive.
The page is filled with stories from customers saying how Aaron regularly made their day with his kindness and enthusiasm.
John Johnson wrote: “Aaron is one person who impacts my quality of life … [he has] drive, energy, commitment.”
Peggy Clayton said this in a letter to Target: “He exemplifies what a hard worker is all about. He is friendly, always remembers the customers, goes out of his way to help, and greet you.”
Aaron was denied unemployment, and only agreed to talk to me after he appealed and won earlier this month. A judge found Aaron “was attempting to be friendly and helpful and did not understand that he was bothering the customers.” Because of his mental impairment, the conduct “was not employment misconduct.”
In a phone interview last week, Aaron said he wanted people to “know the real Aaron Gabriel Itkonen, or you can use my nickname, ‘Icky,’ ” he said. He also wants his former employers to know he was angry and sad that they fired him on Christmas Eve, because he loves Jesus.
Aaron, who now works at a grocery store, wants people to know that he was an Eagle Scout and a scout leader, that he delivered Meals on Wheels and won the Chamber of Commerce’s customer service gold star. He has served jury duty (and can give you the dates) and is a member of the Knights of Columbus.
Aaron paused during our interview to get his Boy Scout Handbook, “to get the words right.” He read me the entire scout oath, then said, “I’ve tried to live that way my whole life.”
Aaron said he was “shocked” by the outpouring of love.
“It’s nice to know I’m appreciated by the people in Grand Rapids,” he said. “It shows what kind of impact you can have if you work hard and treat people right. I wanted to be outstanding, to be the nice person I am, a generally nice, polite guy.”
Dowell said Aaron provided a teaching moment: “With Aaron, the community page proved that the Grand Rapids community was really compassionate and in full support of Aaron and understood his awkwardness,” she said. “I think the bottom line is that Aaron’s story is about awareness.”
Finally, Aaron wanted to be sure he had a chance to thank everyone, and I mean everyone, including his wife, Christina M. Itkonen, Pam Dowell, his extended family, people “in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area,” and everyone who has been helpful “going all the way back to my childhood.”
“Just remember you might see me at any store in the world,” he said, “and I will never forget you.”