Neil Thomas (BA 2013) described his undergraduate experience to be “much more about understanding who I was and building relationships, than it was about the classes that I attended.” Although he recognized that the goal of coming to university was higher education, at Grebel, Neil found that it was “also a really good opportunity and point in somebody's life to figure out who they are, and how they can become a functioning adult in the community.” This is a lesson he took to heart, as he now assists others through some of the most difficult and critical moments of their lives, working as a Crisis and Outreach Clinician in Oxford County for the Canadian Mental Health Association of Thames Valley.  

Neil has a longstanding relationship with Grebel; he spent five semesters in residence, two as a don, three as an associate, and then one year as an off-campus associate. After finishing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, Neil returned to Grebel to work as a custodian for a year before starting a Master of Theology degree, also at Grebel. He took an introductory course in pastoral care and immediately “fell in love with pastoral counseling.” From there, Neil transferred to Wilfrid Laurier University where he finished his Master of Theology in Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy. After completing a psychotherapy internship at Shalom Counseling, Neil worked as a Youth Addictions Counselor with Ray of Hope. 

Neil went on to work as an Addictions Counselor for House of Friendship, eventually managing Rapid Access Addiction Medicine, one-on-one counseling, and community withdrawal support services, before he realized “I needed a change.” He has since worked as a Crisis Clinician alongside the Ontario Provincial Police and Woodstock Police as part of the first line of responders to emergency situations. Neil finds his current job to be immensely gratifying and said that “the most rewarding and fulfilling part is being able to have an immediate and noticeable impact on a person's life - to be able to walk alongside a person during something that's really hard.” Sometimes he answers helpline calls in the office, but noted that “my favorite days are when I’m embedded with the police, in a cruiser alongside the officers.” He continued, “most of the time, when emergency services are called, people aren't having good days; it could be one of the worst days of their life.” Neil aids police officers and doctors in assessing individuals to determine if they need further medical intervention and he also provides additional assistance, such as direction to counseling services and other mental health supports. For Neil, it is "super rewarding, to be able to be there and help another person work through a hard time.” 

Neil Thomas smiling.

Outside of his work hours, Neil spends time at home with his wife and fellow Grebel alum Alyssa (PharmD 2016), and their two-year old son. They are expecting the arrival of their second son at the end of May. Neil also enjoys taking on “random building projects in the backyard,” in addition to many activities, including playing ultimate Frisbee with Grebel alumni. A notable achievement of his was when his team took fifth place in the World Ultimate Club Championship in 2018. The original members of the group had started off playing on “St. Paul’s [now United College] Green which, back when I was here, was a little bit bigger than it is now since they built that apartment building.” He recalled, “we realized that we had a ton of fun playing Ultimate with each other, and ended up becoming pretty good.” 

Neil explained how the inclusive community at Grebel allowed students to "completely reinvent yourself if you want to.” For Neil, this meant attempting yoga for the first time in the chapel and participating in prank wars that resulted in him living without a proper door for an entire term (truly embodying the “doors open” sentiment). The accepting environment of the College not only allowed him an incredible experience, but one that was “formative in making me the person that I am today.” Neil has integrated Grebel values into his career, as he noted that “I go up to people who I've never met before and have hard conversations with them.” He credited this skill partially due to “the comfort and understanding of myself that I developed through relationships and learnings at Grebel.”  

Neil not only acquired unique skills, such as juggling, during his time at the College, but Grebel was also the place where he “learned how to have different perspectives on life.” He was introduced to "ideas of how to engage in the world, like focusing on peace and community.”  

When asked about advice for students, Neil encouraged them to “say yes.” He reflected that this choice allowed him to have “some really cool adventures, develop lasting relationships, and learn a whole bunch.” Whether it was a service trip to Haiti, participating in sports, or learning new skills, it was all made possible "because of an ability and willingness to say yes.” Neil has continued to embody this revelation in his personal and professional life, giving him the strength, skills, and compassion to say yes and help those in need. 

By Natasha Forth

Neil Thomas (BA 2013) is a Crisis and Outreach Clinician for the Canadian Mental Health Association of Thames Valley, aiding police officers in supporting individuals in moments of distress. He is a champion of Grebel, with a strong connection from spending many years living, studying, and working at the College. He and his wife Alyssa (PharmD 2016) have a two-year-old son Wray and are anticipating the birth of their second. 

Neil's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.