Loving what one does is what everyone should do. Let’s be honest. If you don’t love it, don’t do it.” These words guided my conversation with Neal Benson, and I saw firsthand that he meant what he said. As Director of Marketing and Development for The Arc of the St. Johns for the past twelve years, Neal has devoted himself to increasing visibility and attracting the support of the philanthropic community.
Raised in a family with five children, structure and routine shaped his character. He recalls dinners at the table, saying grace, going to church. Such consistency coupled with his parents’ frugal, caring nature influenced his youth, and today he describes himself as a genuinely patient person. “Everything’s calm when you know you have prepared for the expectations.”
Patience is necessary when working with individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities. The Arc is a nonprofit provider of important life services for nearly 300 individuals. With about 300 employees, the organization has grown significantly since Neal began. “For every 1000 people who move to St. Augustine there are four adults who qualify for services, so the growth will continue.” The Arc’s mission to improve their quality of life, and that brings Neal deep pride and satisfaction. “Life expectancy drops nine years when they walk through the door of one of the big institutions,” says Neal. “We can’t let that happen.”
As a young man, Neal was drafted to Vietnam. He returned matured at 21, eager to begin in business. He quit college and embarked upon a career helping organizations create growth and development plans. After decades of traveling in the field, he retired at 55 but pursued writing and published his first novel, Cracker Beach. He was considering a second novel when his daughter was injured in an automobile accident. Their lives were turned upside-down.
As a dedicated husband and father of two, he and his family loyally stuck to his daughter’s side, coping with her traumatic brain injury. Eventually times got tough. Unexpectedly, he received a call encouraging him to contact a woman named Kathy Jackson, Executive Director of The Arc, who needed to raise money for their children’s school. Kathy brought Neal on board, and they raised the funds for a new building for the Therapeutic Learning Center for Children, a free charter school for kids with special needs, which opened in July 2010.
Although Neal has made incredible contributions to the organization, including taking the lead on re-branding, he remains humble and more focused on the staff members who come to work day after day, “making the lives of the folks they serve just a little better.” He says, “I am in awe of those who come here every day.”
The Arc will break ground soon on The Safe Harbor Project, a new hurricane shelter and classroom facility for adults with IDD. Guiding the campaign to raise the $1.8 million for the project is Neal’s current challenge. Despite the intensity and scope of the work, Neal admittedly affirms, “I love what I do.”
Learn more about Neal’s work at the Arc of the St. Johns at www.arcsj.org. Photography by Kate Gardiner.