A University of Guelph student dedicated to volunteer work and civic advancement – and who hopes to become a veterinarian to help others – has just won a prestigious award.
Dustin 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.
Neal is one of only 15 students across Canada to receive the award this year from more than 800 applicants.
“It’s a pretty great award,” Neal said. “I am very honoured to be selected and grateful to my teachers and coaches and others who helped me throughout the process.”
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.
Neal found many ways to get involved while in high school, helping to launch a gender-sexuality alliance club and a United Nations delegation club at their school. But their volunteering career really began when they were in Grade 8 and stumbled on an ad seeking help at a therapeutic horse barn in Mount Hope, Ont.
“I’ve always loved animals, so I started helping out with the therapeutic riding program at TEAD, the Equestrian Association for the Disabled in Mount Hope,” they said. “My mother figured it would get me out of the house and it definitely worked. Now they can’t get rid of me!”
Honoured for years of volunteering in face of adversity
During years of volunteering, not only has Neal helped the facility provide therapy to dozens of participants, but they’ve also discovered a love for farm life – along with a career path that has taken them to U of G.
“I don’t know how I got the farm gene because everyone else in my family is a city person,” said Neal. “I now want to become a large-animal veterinarian and specialize in horses and livestock. I am planning to declare animal science as my major this fall.”
As someone who lives with a chronic autoimmune disease and who has experienced several health and personal challenges, Neal has come to appreciate the value of therapeutic riding and equine-assisted learning.
“Horses are really attuned to human emotions,” they said. “It takes a while to build their trust, to learn to read their signals and to grow comfortable with them. But when you do, and you develop that bond, it really helps people develop confidence and self-esteem.”
Neal says that while their time at the barn is called “volunteer work,” they don’t feel like it’s work at all.
“I keep returning to the horse barn because it’s so enriching,” they said. “The parents are always so overjoyed to see their kids out riding. The participants love it and say that they wait their whole week just for riding day. And then the horses are so sweet and such gentle creatures, you don’t want to leave them each day.”
Neal dreams of providing affordable animal care to under-serviced communities and offering equine support to therapeutic riding barns like the one they’ve worked at. Winning the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award is a sign they’re on the right track.
“To me, this award represents that there are people who truly value community and helping those facing barriers,” Neal said. “This award gives me that motivation to keep going.”