"The best part of this is it's increased autism acceptance," says mom Tracy
A big-hearted teenager who won a lifetime supply of peanut butter, and then gave it away, is the new face of his favorite brand of — what else? — peanut butter.
Eric “Bean” McKay, 15, who has autism, made such a splash with the Lidl supermarket chain that his picture is on the label of the company’s store-branded Beanut Butter.
The label proclaims “Our Friend BEAN,” and sports the youngster’s signature tie-dye color theme.
“We’re so inspired by Bean and his story,” Lidl spokesman Will Harwood exclusively tells PEOPLE.
In honor of Bean, Harwood says, the Germany-based company is marking Autism Awareness Month by donating a portion of its Beanut Butter sales to autism advocacy. “We’re really excited to do this,” he adds.
The saga started last October, when the Woodbridge, Virginia, teenager realized that his family was running low on peanut butter. For some people, that might be a mundane situation; for Bean, it was critical. As part of his autism, Bean has a very narrow self-selected diet. He eats creamy peanut butter at all his meals. Three times a day, he eats the spread, with jelly, on toasted English muffins.
“He writes numbers on his peanut butter jars so we know how much we have,” says Bean’s mom, Tracy, who has consulted with medical professionals about her son’s diet.
With only a few jars remaining in the house last fall, Bean — who had five Twitter followers at the time — tweeted to the family’s grocery store, Lidl, asking for his favorite food to be put on sale.
“The social media team saw that and thought it would be fun to engage,” Harwood says.
The company sent Bean 72 jars in exchange for 72 retweets. The company then issued a challenge: a lifetime supply for 72,000 retweets.
On Jan. 10, Bean hit the mark. The company made good on its offer and invited its new friend to a local warehouse to collect the first of his winnings.
As it happened, the bounty arrived in the midst of the Federal shutdown. Bean knew first-hand what that meant to families; his dad, Jonathan Lamb, was among the furloughed workers.
“Bean said, ‘We have a lot of food now; let’s share it,'” Tracy tells PEOPLE. He donated some of his winnings to those affected by the government shutdown.
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The gesture brought media attention, including a mention on PEOPLE’s Stories to Make You Smile page in the Feb. 11 issue. It also made an impact at Lidl.
“He won this huge windfall and said, ‘Let’s do something to give back,'” Harwood says. “He is really stepping up in such a big way.”
As a result, “We decided to name a product after him,” explains Harwood.
The company is giving 10 cents from every sale to the Autism Society of America. In addition, for the month of April, the chain is holding sensory evenings on Thursdays from 6-10 p.m., when lighting and noise will be reduced inside stores.
Bean is taking his turn in the limelight in stride. On April 11, he tweeted, “I guess every store has a cardboard cutout of me? Which is NOT WEIRD AT ALL!”
Bean is also growing. For the first time, he now is playing competitive sports. This year he joined the lacrosse team at Hylton High School in Woodbridge, where he is a freshman.
The biggest beneficiaries, Tracy says, are people with autism.
“The best part of this is it’s increased autism acceptance,” she says. “I say we need to go beyond autism awareness, and go to acceptance. This is everybody’s world. Everyone is part of it, including people with autism.”
And of course, the whirlwind has made an impact on Bean and his family.
“This has been crazy,” says mom Tracy. “Who would have thought that it would go from Bean having five followers on Twitter to getting his own peanut butter label?”