My Ole Miss Wish
THE OLE MISS STUDENT VETERAN’S ASSOCIATION GIVES BACK TO MILITARY FAMILIES, GRANTING WISHES TO THOSE WITH CHILDREN FACING LIFE-THREATENING ILLNESSES.
WRITTEN BY GINNY McCARLEY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
ILLUSTRATED BY ABBEY EDMONSON
Shhh ... 4-year-old Rowan Neff is about to get an unforgettable surprise. And Rebel fans will get to celebrate with her in Vaught-Hemingway stadium during the Nov. 9 football game against New Mexico State University.
Rowan is the third recipient of the My Ole Miss Wish program, a philanthropic effort, founded in 2018 by the University of Mississippi Student Veterans Association, that provides special experiences to military families with children facing life-threatening illnesses.
Rowan’s dad, a UM alum, is an Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rowan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia just before her second birthday and has undergone treatment for the last two years. Rowan, who loves cheerleading, will be treated to a number of surprises, including a spa day and special time with Ole Miss cheerleaders before the big reveal at the Nov. 9 game.
Naomi Neff, Rowan’s mom, is keeping the weekend a secret, so it will be a fun surprise for Rowan and her three brothers. The Neffs are big Ole Miss fans, and the weekend comes as a giant relief as the family finally settles back into a normal routine following Rowan’s chemotherapy.
“Now that Rowan is finished with treatment, we can breathe a bit, and get back to normal and have fun,” Naomi said. “We’re a huge Ole Miss family, we always have been, and getting to do something as a family and it getting to be a huge surprise for them is just really awesome.”
For many in the Ole Miss and Oxford community, supporting and surprising families who have battled pediatric cancer while serving in the military is a cause everyone can rally around.
“Because of what these families have gone through while they are also choosing to serve our country and put their lives on hold for us, it’s absolutely necessary for us to be able to thank them,” said Andrew Newby, assistant director of the University of Mississippi’s Office of Veteran and Military Services. “We just want to let them know they are appreciated and loved. We get to make meaningful impacts in peoples’ lives, and it’s fun. We get to dream stuff up and make it happen.”
The first My Ole Miss Wish kid was 8-year-old Colton Bullock, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2013 at just 3 years old. After finishing treatment in April 2018, Colton and his family were treated to a weekend full of Ole Miss experiences.
That Friday, Colton was named an honorary lifetime member of the Ole Miss Student Veterans Association, before making his very own “walk of champions,” complete with an ROTC salute. He rode aboard an Oxford Fire Department fire engine to the Ole Miss vs. LSU baseball game, where he threw out the first pitch, hung out with the players and received a signed baseball. On Saturday, the Oxford community gathered in the Grove for a Nerf gun war, one of Bullock’s very favorite games.
Colton’s mom, Brittney Bullock, was stunned by how community members and the Ole Miss ROTC came together to cheer on Colton on the Walk of Champions, and to salute him and honor his bravery. It was an overwhelming show of love after a number of difficult years where Bullock managed not only Colton’s treatment but also her husband’s deployment.
“The Walk of Champions with everyone lined up, saluting my son, that hit me like a ton of bricks,” Brittney Bullock said. “As his mother, of course I feel like he’s so special. But for all of these other people to honor him in this way, it took my breath away.”
Lauren Graham is vice president of the Student Veterans of America at UM. Graham, who has been integral to the planning and execution of the My Ole Miss Wish program since its inception, said the generosity and enthusiasm of the Oxford community is what makes the program special.
“One of the very best things (about the program) is getting all of these different organizations in on it to help,” Graham said. “We had a zero-dollar budget in the spring, and every single person was so helpful; I haven’t gotten a ‘no’ yet. Literally every single person on campus wants to be involved. It’s really nice to see an event that everyone can get behind.”
Last November, the second My Ole Miss Wish recipient, 13-year-old Benjamin Clark, was singled out at an Ole Miss football game, just as Rowan will be this year. More than 60,000 fans in Vaught-Hemingway stadium cheered wildly as the Clark family stood waiting near the 50-yard-line. Suddenly, Benjamin threw his hands in the air and grinned with abandon as Star Wars storm troopers and Darth Vadar approached and presented him with a football signed by Rebels coach Matt Luke.
Next, an even bigger surprise played on the jumbotron: Newby and Coach Luke announced in a special prerecorded video that the Clark family would be taking an all-expenses-paid, weeklong trip to Disney World.
The special day came after a number of very difficult years for the family. Benjamin had just completed his course of treatment after enduring three and a half brutal years of chemotherapy for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Today, he is in remission.
“For me as his mom, the best part of the experience was seeing the joy and sheer surprise on Benjamin’s face when they told him about the trip,” Teri Clark said. “The kid got dealt a tough hand. He handled it so well throughout the whole thing, and to see people willing to go above and beyond to help counteract the bad with some awesomeness was just really, really fun.”
SUPPORT MY OLE MISS WISH
Help support the Student Veterans Association at Ole Miss in a tangible way by purchasing an SVA car tag. All proceeds from license plate sales fund the work of the Ole Miss Student Veterans Association, including My Ole Miss Wish and the Welcome Home Fund.
Tags cost $51 in addition to any local tag charges, and your current tag does not need to be up for renewal to order.
My Ole Miss Wish is just one way the SVA at UM provides care for veterans: Through a variety of programs, the association works to support the veteran student population in their academic, personal and professional lives.
For more information, visit svatag.com.
Contribute directly to My Ole Miss Wish by donating to the University of Mississippi Foundation for the Welcome Home Fund. For more information, email Andrew Newby at firstname.lastname@example.org.