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U of G student wins prestigious Terry Fox Humanitarian Award

The 18-year-old from Caledonia says they are honoured to be recognized for their years of volunteering, something that has brought them resilience in the face of adversity

A desire for farm life wasn’t always the game plan for University of Guelph student Dustin Neal.

Neal, a second-year bachelor of science in agriculture student, has been named a Terry Fox Humanitarian Award scholar in recognition of their determination in overcoming obstacles while impacting society and excelling in academics. 

Recognized for their volunteer work with a therapeutic horse barn, Neal is one of only 15 students across Canada to receive the award this year from more than 800 applicants. 

“It’s a little bit overwhelming,” Neal said.

“When I got the message, I was a shell-shocked. I did not expect to hear from them,” Neal said.

While volunteering at TEAD Equestrian Association for the Disabled in Mount Hope for the last six years, Neal has helped provide therapy to participants.

“It was a one-off thing. My mom and I had been reading our newspaper and we saw an ad saying that they were looking for volunteers for therapeutic riding lessons. My mom has a background in accessible education, and she thought hey, I like animals,” Neal said.

“So, we went together for a little bit. But I wanted to show up so often that my mom could not keep up. So, she would just drop me off and I would spend all day with the horses.”

Neal says the experience soon became all about the horses, the people and the community that the organization creates.

“We run mindfulness programs and the horses are the basis of it. They are amazing creatures. And they are all very attuned to people. Horses can read your emotions better than you think they can. And they know when you are feeling anxious or down,” Neal said.

“The peacefulness and the joy that you get from being around horses and seeing the impact on the people, whether it’s the riders, volunteers and even the instructors, it really brings the whole place together. I never want to leave at the end of my shift.

The experience also led to a new discovery, a passion for farm life, something Neal says they want to continue to pursue at the University of Guelph, and to one day, become a veterinarian.

“Seeing everything they do at the barn, this has really pushed me into wanting to become a vet,” Neal said.

“I want to become a large-animal veterinarian and specialize in horses and livestock. And this fall, I am planning to declare animal science as my major.”

The Terry Fox Humanitarian Award honours and advances the legacy of Canadian athlete and humanitarian Terry Fox. It provides scholarships worth up to $28,000 to recognize young people who have demonstrated courage in the face of obstacles and who have positively impacted society while excelling in school and civic life.  

The 18-year-old from Caledonia says they are honoured to be recognized for their years of volunteering, something that has brought them resilience in the face of adversity.

As a volunteer in high school, Neal also helped to launch a gender-sexuality alliance club and a United Nations delegation club.

But as someone who has also faced a number of challenges while living with chronic autoimmune disease, Neal says volunteering at the therapeutic horse barn made them appreciate the many benefits that therapeutic riding and equine-assisted learning has to offer.

“I’ve always had medical problems all throughout my life. I’ve lived with autoimmune disease since I was 11,” Neal said.

With that, Neal says comes flares of pain, fatigue, and joint issues.

“I found that having a base to empathize with people especially through TEAD and with my other volunteer roles, and knowing that there are barriers I face and things that are difficult because of my body, this has only widened my compassion for others,” Neal said.

“If you can understand the barriers you face, you also understand how barriers affect other people in similar ways.”

Neal says that when they enter vet school, the goal is to specialize in large animals, specifically horses and livestock.

“With that, I want to be able to provide more affordable care to underserviced communities who maybe don’t have access to care and needs vets. I want to be able to provide that support, especially equine health support,” Neal said.

“The Terry Fox Humanitarian Award, based on its history through Terry Fox, and reading other stories as well as my own, what this represents to me is committing to equality and committing to taking down barriers, especially when we ourselves know what it feels like to face them.”

The Terry Fox Humanitarian Award Program aims to honour the spirit of Terry Fox, one of Canada’s greatest heroes, by encouraging Canadian youth who strive to emulate Terry Fox’s courage and determination by providing their communities and those in need with humanitarian service.

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Barbara Latkowski

About the Author: Barbara Latkowski

Barbara graduated with a Masters degree in Journalism from Western University and has covered politics, arts and entertainment, health, education, sports, courts, social justice, and issues that matter to the community
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