Voracious Volunteer: Alyson Neiner

At a weekly book club meeting, Alyson and club participants take turns reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Allen, Ladue Horton Watkins High School, Senior

Though 15-year-old Whitfield School freshman Alyson Neiner long knew she wanted to be a doctor, she didn’t know which field to study until she discovered her true passion: working with the mentally challenged.

Since age nine, Alyson, who is a member of Shaare Emeth, has volunteered with a weekly Barnes and Noble book club for mentally challenged women through the non-profit foundation St. Louis Arc, which coordinates several book clubs in the St. Louis area. During the book club’s two 10-week sessions each Thursday night from 7 to 8 p.m., Alyson and her mother sit at a table and take turns reading books out loud along with the club’s participants. In the years since Alyson and her mother first became involved, the pair has become the book club’s primary leaders.


“It feels really nice to be in charge and be responsible for these ladies and [to be] teaching them a skill that I learned when I was very little,” Alyson said. “I’ve always loved reading and it’s been so much fun to help them along.”

Over the years, Alyson’s dedication has become apparent to the members of the book club, their families, and Arc employees. Although Alyson also plays volleyball and participates in musical theatre, she has continued to find time to work with the book club.

“She really wants them to be successful and be independent and improve their reading skills so that they can achieve their goals in the future,” Arc Leisure Services Coordinator Breanne Ward said. “She’s been with the group since the beginning, so when she was nine, so the girls in the book club have been able to watch her grow up and not everyone gets to have that experience.”

According to Ward, that experience allowed the book club to form an uncommonly strong bond. Alyson and her mother even organize outings related to their book club selections, including a trip to Daniel Boone’s home. Her long-term involvement with the book club has allowed her to form deep and lasting relationships with its members, who Alyson invited to her bat mitzvah.

“It’s also great that she also dedicates her time outside of book club to spend time with the girls in the club,” Ward said. “It shows dedication.”

Alyson’s dedication to the book club sparked a deep commitment to volunteering with the physically and mentally challenged. In addition to her role in the book club, Alyson volunteers at Valley Industries, a shelter workshop for the mentally and physically challenged. Alyson also decided to become a counselor at Wonderland Camp for the physically and mentally challenged, where she has volunteered for the past two summers.

“I only go for one or two weeks at a time, but I’m treated the same way as the others counselors who are in college,” Alyson said. “You have to always be attentive to the campers at all times.”

Wonderland Camp offers the first wheelchair accessible tree house in Missouri, a wheelchair accessible pool, arts and crafts, as well as a pontoon boat that the campers use for 20-30 minutes once a week. Though Alyson is the youngest counselor at Wonderland Camp, she plays no less of a role than the older counselors.

“Last year, I was put in a cabin with four staff members, including myself, and four wheelchairs in the cabin, so that was a little tricky, but we made it work,” Alyson said. “You’re just responsible for every single one of them and you have to make sure that they’re safe and that they’re having a good time also.”

As Alyson has helped to change the lives of those she works with, Alyson has changed as well.

“I’ve definitely gained a lot of patience,” Alyson said. “Sometimes it can be difficult. More times than not, it’s so much fun. In group projects at school, I used to get frustrated … but now I’m a lot more patient.”

Her role in the book club and Wonderland Camp has shaped not just her personality, but also her career choices. After high school, Alyson hopes to study medicine through the six-year medical school program at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, with the eventual goal of becoming a pediatric neurologist, a field that involves working with mentally and physically challenged children.

“I want to learn how their brain works, what wires aren’t connected, what wires are connected, and just take a look inside their world,” Alyson said.