WRA's Annie Neill shares passion for volunteering with students

A service-oriented life

by Peggy Sexton Photos by Robert J. Lucas Published:

One Friday in January, Western Reserve Academy's new Director of Outreach, Annie Neill, wrestled 110 pounds of sloppy joes and 25 cakes into her minivan to drive to the Haven of Rest in Akron -- all in a day's work when it's Service Day at the school.

"The man who helped unload wondered what banquet we'd had that produced so much leftover food," Neill says. She explained to him that the food wasn't leftover but was all prepared that day by the students for the homeless shelter. "'Really?' he said. I think he was quite surprised," she laughs.

Counting the kids in the kitchen on campus, Neill tracked the comings and goings of 387 students and 55 faculty members at a number of locations that day, including area Goodwill stores, Sarah's House in Akron, Center of Hope Christian Cupboard in Ravenna and the Food Bank of Cleveland. For some, the annual Service Day event would be a logistical nightmare, but not for Neill.

"It's like a puzzle and I love it," she says. "It takes time to figure it all out, but in the end it's worth it." She says she received many emails from the students afterwards thanking her for all the volunteer experiences they'd been given that day.

"For one day, they were able to focus on something bigger than themselves," Neill says.

Since she started coordinating the school's community service programs in the fall, Neill has changed things up a bit like allowing students to sign up to volunteer with friends or letting them choose the project that best suits them.

Finding volunteer opportunities for her students is not easy.

"Hudson has such a strong volunteer spirit and strong church units working on projects. It's just fantastic," she says.

However, sometimes that means fewer opportunities for her students. She's disappointed that WRA's involvement at the Hudson Food Pantry is only once a month, not weekly as she'd hoped. Currently, seven Hudson groups share monthly work duties at the pantry.

A shortage of opportunities in the local area isn't the only challenge of the job. Transporting students to Akron and Cleveland becomes tricky and expensive. Fitting volunteer service into a high school student's busy life is the other catch.

Neill should know. She was once that busy student herself at Northfield Mount Hermon, a boarding school in Northfield, Mass. There she worked at a local soup kitchen and came to a greater appreciation of the evening meal in the dining hall.

"It was such a profound experience to work all afternoon in the soup kitchen and then come back to campus in the evening and see the abundance of healthy food we had that we took for granted. That memory never really leaves you."

Though she says she didn't have a clear vision of her future profession in high school, her teachers and mentors at the school were not surprised to hear she ended up in social work. "Everyone seems to have known what I was going to do before I did," she laughs. She earned a master's degree from the University of Connecticut and worked as a clinical psychotherapist in residential treatment programs for children and adults.

But she ended up back at NMH after her husband, Jeff, also a NMH alum, took a job there. Jeff was on the English faculty and Neill taught health and directed the school's Community Service and Service Learning programs. Their faculty housing was in the dorm.

"We loved being around the kids; love the energy they have. When our daughter was a baby and her crying was too much for me, I'd take her out to the lounge and her cries would draw all the girls and they would take over," she says. "We had a dorm full of babysitters."

She credits her experience with group dynamics in helping her work in a proactive manner with students. "I'm more prone to look for red flags in their behavior and not be afraid to confront problems," she says.

As dean of the senior class, psychology teacher and girl's lacrosse coach at WRA, Neill has plenty of chances for interacting with students, in addition to her duties in Outreach. Connecting one-on-one with students is one of the great advantages of a boarding school environment, Neill says. Each child has so many adults who care about them and who are looking out for their well-being, she explains.

While she misses dorm life, she says living in the David Hudson house on Main Street is an intriguing consolation, haunted or not. Students are frequent visitors to the family's home where she and Jeff, WRA's Director of College Counseling since 2012, live with their children, Stella and Chase. "It's just one of those houses you want to share," says Neill. "It's fun to live in a piece of Hudson history."

More service to come

WRA plans another Service Day for April 24. In the meantime, Neill is working to forge relationships with Hands, Hearts and Homes, Access, Inc. and Habitat Restore in Kent. And she's reaching out to the community for input.

"If readers have suggestions for volunteering, I'd be happy to hear them," she says.

"Research shows that if you start volunteering at a young age, you're much more likely to live a life of service in your adult years," Neill says. "Stepping outside their adolescent micro world is important for our students."v

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