Class of 2019: Lillie Neal Finds Giving to Be a Rewarding Pursuit

April 26, 2019 By Jane Kelly, Jane Kelly,

Lillie Neal volunteers like there is no tomorrow, and she doesn’t want your praise.

In addition to completing her degree in kinesiology (with a minor in psychology) at the University of Virginia, Neal assists two people. One is second-year student Rachel Lefkowitz, who has muscular dystrophy. The other is Josh Rocker, a 21-year-old Charlottesville resident who has a developmental disability called fragile X syndrome.

Neal also volunteers with the local chapter of Special Olympics and is part of a club called FeelGood, which sells grilled cheese sandwiches and gives all of its proceeds to fight world hunger.

Neal spends almost as much time volunteering as she does going to class. But she wants you to understand something: “I think that a lot of times when pieces are written about individuals with disabilities, it can turn into, ‘The person volunteering is doing so much for this disadvantaged group,’” she said.

But that simplistic view is missing half of the story. “I don’t want this to be a story about how I’m helping someone and giving them so much of my time. It’s more of a two-way street. We learn so much from each other and I just really love doing it.”

We followed Neal for the entirety of her fourth year at UVA to see how she balances her academics and volunteer work, to meet the people she works with, and to learn more about how  volunteering changed from a résumé-builder to a deep passion she says helps her grow every day.

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A People Person

One of the first things you notice about Lillie Neal is her calm presence. She offers no pretense and speaks plainly. Her open-minded demeanor puts people at ease and makes it possible for Neal to connect with people in all parts of her life.

You can hear that in the way people talk about her. Vikram Jaswal, a psychology professor, teaches one of her favorite courses, “The Science and Lived Experience of Autism,” which melds UVA students with college-aged, nonspeaking autistic people.

Lillie Neal listens to Vikram Jaswal, her psychology professor, this spring in New Cabell Hall.

“Lillie is wonderful. She is so sharp,” Jaswal said. “My course is about the science and lived experience of autism and she is able to draw connections between these two things, which are too often considered to be separate.

“She brings a wealth of experience from her own background interacting with disabled folks. She is one of the most active students in making sure that the community partners that we engage with are made to feel part of our community.

“She’s also really excellent at bringing out the best in her peers at UVA, in the classroom, encouraging people to go deeper in what they have to say,” he said. “She is one of the most thoughtful students that I know.”

Building Friendships

Two years ago, Neal connected with Rachel Lefkowitz over a Facebook post seeking a personal care attendant. “Lillie contacted me saying she was interested in the job,” Lefkowitz said last fall as she and Neal headed to Lefkowitz’s next class on UVA’s South Lawn.

The two quickly began filling their downtime with fun activities. A friendship grew.

“We do lots of different things,” Lefkowitz said. “Shopping. Movies. She helps take me to classes. Anything that requires the use of muscular strength, she helps me do those things.”

Neal and Lefkowitz also listen to a lot of music. “Lillie and I have a little bit different taste in music, but I think we are willing to listen to one another’s,” Lefkowitz said, laughing. “Lillie likes a little bit more twangy country and I like more pop country, but I also just tend to like more alternative music.”

“We do a lot of Buzzfeed quizzes, too,” Neal interjected. “We’ll do it at the same time to see if we get the same thing and like, half the time we do.”

On Sunday nights, Neal does a night shift at Lefkowitz’s apartment in Bice House. “I go over and I sleep over there. I’ll help get her ready for bed and help her wake up and do other tasks you couldn’t do if you didn’t have that much muscular strength,” Neal said.

Neal carries Rachel Lefkowitz’s backpack
Neal carries Rachel Lefkowitz’s backpack for her as the friends head to Lefkowitz’s next class.

She typically arrives at Lefkowitz’s two-bedroom apartment about 10 p.m. The two will watch a movie (some throwbacks include “Shrek” and “Lilo & Stitch”) and Neal will turn in for the night about 12:30. Lefkowitz, a night owl, stays up later. “Whenever she needs me, which is usually like 2:30 or 3 a.m., she’ll call me, and I’ll come help her get ready,” Neal said. “And then we both go back to sleep.”

Then it’s up in the morning, getting dressed and heading to class.

Neal said working with Lefkowitz has taught her not to complain. “She’ll have like 300 pages of reading to do in a day and she will just sit down and do it,” she said, “and I really respect that.

“I’ve always been the person who is reliable and will do what I set out to do, but I think sometimes I can complain or be annoyed that I have to do it. She’s just helped me have a better and more positive mindset about things,” she said.

While the bulk of Neal’s time with Lefkowitz is spent on Grounds, Neal hangs out with her other friend, Josh Rocker, in Charlottesville.

Neal is technically his attendant, but it is clear a loving friendship has formed between the two. Rocker, who is probably the happiest person you’ll ever meet, lives with his parents in town and attends a post-high school program during the day. He and Lillie spend time together in the afternoons, mostly snacking and talking.

Panera Bread is a regular haunt, where Rocker orders his favorite: broccoli cheddar soup, sometimes in a sourdough bread bowl. Then the pair hits Kroger. “I help her with her grocery shopping,” Rocker said excitedly with a big grin plastered across his face.

Neal and Rocker hung out and baked chocolate chip cookies.
One afternoon earlier this semester, Neal and Rocker hung out at her apartment on 14th Street, where they baked chocolate chip cookies.

Karaoke also figures large in their relationship. They head back to Neal’s apartment for singing sessions with her three roommates. “I sing ‘Black Magic’ [by British girl group Little Mix]. It’s so fun,” Rocker said. They also drive around town blasting the candy pop music from Neal’s car stereo.

Games, baking and laughing also fill their time, and Josh has come to know many of Neal’s good friends, including one of her best friends, Alex Hyldmar, whom Rocker often confuses with Neal’s brother, Voss, who is a first-year student.

During one visit to her apartment one afternoon this winter, the conversation turned to the future. Rocker has applied to George Mason LIFE, a college residential program for students with development disabilities. And after graduating in May, Neal will head to Virginia Commonwealth University to study occupational therapy. “I’m sad she is leaving me!” Rocker said. “But she will come back [to visit.] Don’t worry.”

To Neal, he said, “I will visit you if I want!”

Rocker loves art and adores Neal. He has written her several fond notes, which Neal hangs on her bedroom walls.

For Neal, Rocker’s positive attitude has been contagious. “I’ve just learned to be a more confident and an outgoing person,” she said. “Each person he meets is met with a huge smile and open arms. Watching that has helped me be a little less shy. It’s just hard not to have a smile on my face when I’m around him.”

Neal was able to balance her school and volunteer work by being disciplined. She made sure she never had school work to do on the weekend and had regular “study dates” with friends around Grounds and at 1515, the student center on the Corner.

Calling All Cheesy People

A love of giving back and grilled cheese sandwiches is what drew Neal to join FeelGood, a national, college-led social movement that uses the tasty sandwiches to battle world hunger.

UVA’s chapter started in 2013. Albemarle Baking Company donates the bread and the national organization reimburses students for the other ingredients. They serve signature sandwiches like the $5 “Pizza My Heart,” which features mozzarella, marinara sauce and oregano. Neal’s favorite grilled cheese features lots of sharp cheddar cheese and caramelized onions.

Making Cheddar cheese, Granny Smith apples, arugula and Dijon mustard sandwich
Neal makes a “Celine Dijon,” a savory combination of cheddar cheese, Granny Smith apples, arugula and Dijon mustard.

“From the money raised, we donate 100% of the proceeds to four different nonprofits that all have some sort of mission regarding hunger and sustainability,” Neal said. “These nonprofits include Choice Humanitarian, The Hunger Project, Water for People and Pachamama Alliance.”

Neal is the public relations chair, so she makes the menus, Facebook events and flyers for the Sunday night “delis,” where she and her clubmates make and sell the food to hungry students.

Neal and fellow members of FeelGood holding a “deli” outside Clemons Library last fall.

Last week, the organization hit its goal of raising $3,000 for the year. “It is by far the biggest year we have had,” Neal said. UVA’s FeelGood chapter has raised about $5,000 since it started.

Special Olympics & Alternative Spring Break

Volunteering for Special Olympics is a year-round endeavor for Neal. In the fall, there is volleyball and soccer; spring brings track and swimming. Rocker is heavily involved in the organization, which delivers high-quality training and competition to people with intellectual disabilities.

“After I started working with Josh, I knew I wanted to get involved in Special Olympics,” Neal said. “So I started going and I would see him there, and so I started to get to know all the athletes.”

Last week, she went to UVA’s North Grounds Recreation Center to help with swim training. “I always love going and swimming with the athletes and just getting to know them more, since you get to talk a lot in the pool,” she said.

“When I used to volunteer with bowling, there was one athlete who was deaf and I know just a bit of sign language from a show I used to watch,” she said.

The young man would teach her bits and pieces of sign language during bowling sessions at the dimly lit Kegler’s bowling alley on Route 29. “It was so interesting to communicate in a way I wouldn’t normally. When he was taking his turn bowling, I would Google things to say. We really bonded through that.”

Neal helps at a Special Olympics swim practice.

Neal said she’s learned so much from her experience volunteering for Special Olympics. “It’s so nice going somewhere and knowing everyone’s names and getting to ask them how their weeks and lives are going,” she said.

In her second and third years at the University, Neal participated in Alternative Spring Break, a student-run service organization that organizes and conducts service projects.

“I did the first one in South Carolina at Congaree National Park. I wanted to give back,” Neal said. “I’ve always been interested in environmental conservation.”

Neal applied to be a co-site leader her third year. “I went to Little Talbot Island in Florida. That involved planning all of the trip, getting in touch with everyone who works there and then picking the participants,” she said. Her team posted signs to protect birds’ nests and cleared trails.

Volunteering: From Résumé-Building to Pure Passion

“The way that my parents raised me, it’s always kind of been a sense of, ‘If you can give back, you should,’” Neal said. Still, as a high schooler she was not all-in on that notion.

“When I was in high school, I think a lot of the motivation to volunteer, selfishly enough, was to get into college,” she said. “It’s always been a part of my life, but it wasn’t until college that I realized how much it can do for you, rather than you do for it. Just coming to UVA, it made me realize that it impacts you just as much.”

“I’ve loved what I’ve done and I’ve really felt the benefits,” Neal said. “Everyone I’ve met volunteering has taught me a lot. I think that’s why I do it so much. I think that it could burn out some people. But just actually loving the people that I’ve met has really helped.”

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications