It’s a Friday evening in mid-September, and a crowd is gathering outside the Diamond Club entrance at Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia.
The Phillies are on the road in Houston for the night, but a few hundred people inside the stadium are abuzz over the appearance of a man who’s become a celebrity in their eyes: Kevin Neary.
Kevin’s friends and family are gathered at the ballpark for a celebration of his 30th birthday. By all accounts, though, Kevin, a 2004 College graduate, shouldn’t even be here tonight.
Nearly a year ago, Kevin was shot in the neck while walking to his home in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia. At around 3 a.m. on Nov. 15, 2011, Kevin found himself sprawled out on the street, barely able to utter a whisper into the night air for help.
While the gunman, Christopher Easter, was sentenced in September to 30 to 60 years in prison for attempted murder, Kevin’s life changed forever on that night last year.
Today, Kevin is a quadriplegic. He will never again walk, nor will he be able to move his hands or arms on his own. His range of motion does not extend beyond a slight shrug of the shoulders and a turn of the head an inch or so to both sides.
Daily tasks that he once took for granted — getting out of bed in the morning, bathing, typing on a computer — can now take hours out of his day.
His mind remains sharp, though, and he’s determined not to let his injury define him.
“Life’s too short to constantly be thinking back to that night,” he says. “Every minute of every day, I want to make the best of it. I’ve still got a lot to live for.”
Getting to Penn
A little girl announces the arrival of her older cousin as Kevin is wheeled in through the doors at Citizens Bank Park.
He’s wearing a light blue sweater and his hair is neatly slicked back. If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed from before the shooting, jokes his father, Joe Neary, it’s that Kevin likes to look his best whenever he’s out in public.
“He’s still very clothes-conscious, very style-conscious, which I think is a good thing today,” said Joe, who described his son as “an extremely giving person.”
“There’s no artifice when it comes to Kevin,” Joe added. “When you’re a friend, you’re a friend forever.”
Kevin, the middle brother of three in his family, grew up in Delaware County’s Upper Chichester Township.
Kevin and his brothers grew particularly close in their early years through one shared love: the Phillies.
“He’s just an encyclopedia when it comes to baseball,” said Kevin’s younger brother, Chris Neary, who now works in Washington, D.C. “Baseball’s the catalyst he’s used to connect to a lot of people over the years, and it’s worked well for him.”
After graduating from high school, Kevin enrolled at the University of Miami in 2000. After his freshman year, though, he reasoned that he was growing “a little homesick” and decided to submit an application to Penn to study closer to home.
He was accepted to the University and enrolled as a transfer student in 2001.
“I just loved the vibrant campus and city life,” Kevin said. “Penn kind of provided its own sanctuary to me.”
Anthony Coombs, a 2002 College graduate who served as Kevin’s transfer student coordinator at Penn, recalled how quickly Kevin began to make friends on campus.
“You’d become best friends with him after just one conversation,” Coombs said. “The guy who shot Kevin came from a fairly impoverished background and had been in trouble with the law before, and I’ve often thought that had he met Kevin under different circumstances, he could’ve been friends with him. That’s just the type of person he is.”
But then, in November 2002, Kevin’s mother, Marian, died following a battle with lung cancer.
Although his mother’s death was a heartbreaking loss, Kevin said it brought him, his brothers and his father closer together than ever before.
“In the end, I think it made everybody stronger,” Kevin said. “She taught us all a lot about working hard, about caring and compassion, and I think we’ve strived to live up to those standards.”
For Joe, however, the loss of Marian nearly a decade ago made last year’s shooting an even more intense emotional experience.
“There are days when you just sit there and ask, ‘Why? You took Marian away from us nine years ago, why are you doing this to Kevin?’” he said. “I’m glad that she’s not sharing in this suffering — it would break her heart.”
A groundswell of support
It’s about one week after his Citizens Bank Park birthday celebration, and Kevin is returning from a routine checkup with a doctor to his Upper Chichester home, where he lives today with his father and older brother, JP Neary.
It takes a team of two — Joe and the nurse on duty at the time — to get Kevin’s power chair out of the van and onto the driveway. From there, Joe pushes Kevin up the white, L-shaped ramp that leads to the doorway.
Now in his living room, Kevin can take it from here. As he controls his chair with slight movements of his head, the nurse on duty helps to adjust Kevin’s position. In order to avoid the risk of getting pressure sores, Kevin explains, the nurse needs to shift his body frequently throughout the day.
Today, nurses, doctors and medical appointments are as common a presence in Kevin’s life as just about anything else. He jokes that he’s lost count of all of the surgeries and procedures he’s had over the past year.
In December, after making it through about 10 operations to stabilize his neck and insert a pacemaker inside his body, Kevin was moved to a room in Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
It was around this time that a group began formalizing a new support organization for Kevin, called Friends of Kevin Neary.
In addition to bringing together Kevin’s friends and family for a handful of fundraising and awareness events over the past year, FOKN has also created a trust for the parts of Kevin’s day-to-day care that have not been covered by the Medicaid support he has received. To date, Joe said the FOKN trust has raised in excess of $200,000.
“It’s a shame that it had to be because of this, but the support we’ve seen has really reminded us of how great people can be,” said JP, who currently works as a major gifts officer for Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s very inspiring.”
That support has extended to the Penn community, as well. At Kevin’s birthday celebration, for instance, a handful of members of the University’s cheerleading team — with which JP works as a volunteer coach — came out to show their support by working at the event registration table.
“Kevin’s been there for so many of us in our friendships with him that I think it’s really a no-brainer that people have come out in such force,” said 2004 College graduate Tom Lione, who was friends with Kevin throughout his time at Penn and remains active with FOKN today. “We want to constantly show that we’ll always be there for him, that the enthusiasm will never fade.”
Kevin believes he is getting better by the day largely because of the work of his father.
A few months after the shooting, Joe, now 62, made the decision to retire earlier than planned from his job as a senior financial analyst at Johnson Matthey and care for Kevin.
“My dad’s been a rock,” Kevin said. “He’s given up a lot of his life goals because of this, and he’s been a source of inspiration. He works hard every day to give me the best care he can.”
Even Joe knows, though, that his nearly around-the-clock involvement in Kevin’s life cannot last forever.
“There’s going to have to be some contingencies here about what’s going to happen,” said Joe, explaining that looking after Kevin day-to-day can take a physical toll. “I don’t imagine that I’ll be doing all of this when I’m 72.”
While Kevin acknowledges that he likely won’t be able to return to the same type of work schedule he had before November 2011 — he worked in healthcare consulting after graduating from Penn — he still has big visions for his future.
Kevin’s long-term goal is to raise funds, awareness and support for those who sustain serious injuries similar to his.
“Nobody wants to sit at home and stare at four white walls all day,” he said. “I’ve always made it a priority to get out there and give to other people who have less, and I don’t think that’s changed at all.”
Although JP knows that “there are still a lot of bridges left to cross,” he believes Kevin is in a position to succeed.
“I think we’re all increasingly realizing how permanent things are,” he said, “but if there’s one person who’s going to make the best of this, it’s Kevin.”