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5-min read | By: Sophie Marcom

We all expect to meet our friends in novel places, such as our schools, our neighborhoods, through other friends, etc. However, CPALS has introduced a new type of friendship to college students’ and pediatric hospital patients’ lives. Our organization works to pair a patient at UNC Children’s Hospital with a current student at UNC-Chapel Hill. The relationships between UNC students and their CPALS are at the heart of this organization. In this post, we want to showcase an incredibly special relationship between two of our CPALS.

Neil Rowen and his pal Jonathan met a year and a half ago in the fall of 2019. At the time, Neil was a junior at UNC and Jonathan was 8 years old. Though the past year of their time together has been limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, their dedication to their friendship has become even clearer through their efforts to stay in contact virtually. Neil, now a senior, and Jonathan, now 10 years old, reminisced on their time as friends in an interview this past month.

When asked to describe their first impressions of one another, the first word to come to mind for both of them was “fun”. Jonathan said, “I was eight when I first met Neil, and Neil is very fun.”. Neil described his first impression of Jonathan as well, saying:

“I remember Meghan told me, ‘Jonathan is this really funny kid, he’s super sweet’, and then I think in our first initial meeting, we immediately clicked. It’s always been really fun hanging out with him.”

Before the pandemic moved their friendship online, Neil would join Jonathan and his family at his clinic visits at UNC hospital. In the clinic, they loved to play Uno, Connect Four, and a lot of Jenga. When asked, “Who always wins?”, Jonathan answered without hesitation saying, “Basically me.” Neil laughed when remembering their times playing board games, saying, “Every game we play, Jonathan, like, consistently wins.” Now, Jonathan and Neil have weekly phone calls or zoom calls where they play many online games (which Jonathan continues to win) and talk to each other about their weeks. This past holiday season, they made New Year’s Resolutions together and exchanged holiday cards. They recalled some of their past holiday memories as well, such as when Jonathan made a snowman ornament with a picture of him and Neil inside of it.

Despite all of the disruptions 2020 brought into Neil and Jonathan’s friendship, they were able to share a really important moment together in October when Jonathan had his bell-ringing ceremony to celebrate finishing his treatment at UNC. Neil wasn’t able to go inside the hospital to be with Jonathan, so they got creative. Neil stood outside of the building with a sign and waved at Jonathan during the celebration. Jonathan described his memory of the day as well: “Neil had a walkie talkie and I had a walkie talkie, so we could talk to each other.” Neil said that the bell ringing ceremony is his favorite memory with Jonathan —

“He’s just been such a trooper with everything and has always taken things very graciously in such high spirits. He always brings up the mood of everyone around him, so him coming to that culminating moment was such a big moment for him and everyone in the clinic.”

Neil made sure to emphasize Jonathan’s many accomplishments, including his dancing skills (which he showed off over Zoom), and the fact that he has been on the honor roll both of the past semesters during COVID. There is clearly a lot to admire about both Jonathan and his family, and Neil reflected on the ways he has grown in his time knowing them —

“They would often give little gifts and things to people who were next to them in the clinic, whether it be clothes or just buying them a meal or something. As a family, they’re just very gracious. And Jonathan was also always very generous with his time and just being thoughtful of other people and being very in tune to what they need and what will make them feel better. Just all around, they are a very outward-looking family, always thinking about how they can fill people up.”

It was so special to hear Neil and Jonathan share their stories and laughter with one another, and it is even more special to share their story with all of you through this blog. We hope that it highlights how this is an organization that is truly defined by its members. There are so many pieces to the puzzle that is CPALS, and this blog aims to give as many members as possible the recognition that they deserve.