Tar Heel of the Week

Despite his personal challenges, Billy Ray Neal feeds the hungry

CorrespondentNovember 23, 2013 

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Billy Ray Neal, right, gives a box a food to Armetta Harper of Zebulon last Thursday at Community Helpers, a nonprofit food pantry in Knightdale. Neal devoted himself to Community Helpers last year, which gives food to hundreds of people throughout the Triangle.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Billy Ray Neal

    Born: Oct. 28, 1949, in Wendell

    Residence: Knightdale

    Career: President, Community Helpers Service Center

    Awards: Citizen of the Year, Knightdale Chamber of Commerce, 2011; Honorary Black Belt, Black Belt World Taekwondo; Most Pounds Distributed Award from the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, 2006-07

    Family: Wife, Pearlie; children, Samuel, Terry, Jeffrey, Arrington, Jasmine, Bianca, Elijah, Adriana; 20 grandchildren

    Education: Lockhart High School

    Fun fact: A sorority recently collected 1,200 children’s books for Community Helpers to distribute, and Neal added his own requirement for children who receive them – a book report, even if it’s just a simple crayon drawing inspired by the book. He says the assignment is for parents as much as the children. “A lot of people don’t read to their children, and they should,” Neal says. “I want them to really use those books.”

— Billy Ray Neal has a lot to be thankful for – his life first and foremost. Born with an elongated spine that developed several tumors near his brain, doctors expected him to be bed-ridden after a series of surgeries more than 20 years ago.

But Neal, now 64, is still rolling. And thousands of people in the Triangle should be thankful that he is.

Neal has run Community Helpers Service Center, a Knightdale nonprofit that feeds thousands of local residents every month, for eight years. He took over after the death of his brother, the group’s founder.

Since then, he has overseen its steady growth from a tiny outfit to a massive food distribution center that provided more than a million meals last year to residents of Wake, Johnston and Franklin counties, in addition to offering clothing and books for children.

He has done this for no pay and despite significant health problems – unsteady legs, ineffective hands, vertigo, slightly crossed eyes. He and his wife have also been active foster parents, taking in more than a dozen children over the years, and adopting four.

“I think he’s the best person I have ever known,” says Yuri Gonzalez, a longtime Community Helpers volunteer who first came to the center as a client. “He tries to help everyone, and he wants to do anything he can for the people in this community who need him.”

A father’s lesson

Neal was born in Eagle Rock, a small community between Knightdale and Wendell, and spent much of his youth in Raleigh before moving to Knightdale permanently as a teenager.

He had already married and fathered four children when he started having trouble walking in his late 30s. He was in a lot of pain, and eventually doctors determined that his spine had been too long since birth. They also found growths near the top of his spinal cord.

He underwent several brain surgeries, and had to learn again how to walk, talk and use his hands. He made his way back to his job as a certified nursing assistant, which he says he loved, but his disability forced him to retire at 45.

He spent about a year selling gospel music and church supplies, but he gave that up when his family started Community Helpers so he could help them and serve on the board.

Neal’s brother and niece founded the nonprofit in 1999 to honor Neal’s father, a tobacco and cotton farmer who spent his evenings digging wells for people in their area who didn’t have water and couldn’t afford to dig them. He died when Neal, the youngest of seven children, was only 17.

Neal says his father didn’t go to church, hadn’t gone far in school and never made a lot of money. But in those evenings he spent digging past dark, he instilled in his children the importance of helping others.

“He was just a good man, a regular guy who worked and believed in doing something for other people, and they wanted to continue that,” Neal says of his brother and niece. “And I wanted to keep his legacy going, too.”

When his brother died and his niece fell ill, both of cancer, other family members involved in the pantry asked him to take over. He didn’t hesitate, and now works there five days a week as its director, sometimes sleeping there or making his way home only when his wife calls him.

“This is my way out,” Neal says. “Because of the problems I have, it would be easy to get depressed. It’s hard work, but I don’t back away from anything.”

Outside of Community Helpers, Neal is a deacon in his church, and was chairman of the deacon’s board for decades until stepping down recently.

His family life is also demanding. He and his wife’s four biological children are in their 30s and 40s, but the couple also adopted four children, the youngest 14, and fostered many more. More than 50 people will gather at his home this year for Thanksgiving.

Plenty of need

This past Wednesday, the center’s largest weekly distribution day, 200 people started arriving at the Knightdale office around 7 a.m., forming a line that snaked around the building and between oak trees marked with caution tape.

Each had his or her own tale – recent immigrants getting a foothold, short- and long-term unemployed, people crippled financially by health problems.

Julie Bell hadn’t been able to work since a car accident more than a year ago. Her 34-year-old son, who has a wife and child, hasn’t been able to find a job since he finished four years in the Army, including a tour in Afghanistan. Community Helpers has been the entire family’s primary food source for months.

“It’s really been a blessing to have this,” says Bell, 57. “It’s been so important for my family.”

By 11 a.m., enough food to make 677 meals was carted away in boxes, laundry baskets and rolling carts, including sweet potatoes, yogurt, baked goods and canned and boxed food.

The next day, a smaller crowd took home more food. On Saturday, the group distributed coats, books, pajamas and other items at Knightdale High School. Inside the tiny headquarters, hallways and offices were stuffed with donated clothes and toys.

Neal runs Community Helpers with about 20 volunteers who help pass out food, most of it bought with donations from the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. They also make daily rounds to grocery stores to pick up donated food, keep up with the paperwork on each client, and direct traffic at the massive morning distribution times.

Neal does a little bit of all of those things, but mainly he oversees the whole operation. He seeks out new partnerships, grants and donations so that the pantry can help more people. The organization runs on a budget of $14,000, according to its 2012 tax form.

Through different partnerships, he’s able to distribute children’s pajamas and books, toys at Christmastime, holiday meals, and furniture to people who lose their homes to fire.

The number of people the pantry serves has grown from about 15 people in a day when it first started to 80 a day five years later, and hundreds a day now, Neal says.

“We’ve taken this place from one level to a higher level,” he says. “And we’ll keep growing as this town grows, as the number of people who need us grows.”

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