OPEN: Heather & Melaney Neal

Photos by Merissa Humes, Story by Jason Curry | Sept. 26, 2023

Heather Neal, originally from Olympia, has called Tacoma home for some time. In fact, of all us Disco attenders, she may hold claim as Jon and Traci’s current closest neighbor. But don’t ask her how long she’s been attending Discovery. That’s where things get a little foggy. “I don’t really know, “ she replies. ”I went a few times when it was in the Galaxy Theater but the popcorn popping was just too distracting to me. I came back years later. So…maybe 10-11 years ago?” Clearly, Discovery has felt like a part of her life for so long, the years start to bleed into themselves. But what remains crystal clear are the things that matter most: her beautiful childhood, the spark that fanned the flame of her chosen career, one she‘s been doing for the past 15 years, and the first time she laid eyes on her daughter, Melaney, whom she adopted six years ago.

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Favorite Childhood Memory?

Heather: Growing up, we lived on a dead-end road full of kids. We would play hide and seek for hours. All the front and back yards were options to hide and the sewer cover in the middle of the road was base. We would play until the street lights came on and all the parents came out. We always hoped they would get to talking so we could play longer. So fun!

Discovery Community Church: Heather, you have a story like so many others around here when it comes to making Discovery your community, in that it wasn’t a perfect match right from the jump. But now that you’ve been here for a while, looking back, what brought you back, and what’s kept you here all these years?

Heather Neal: I was looking for a church that had solid biblical teaching, welcomed people as they were and was invested in the community. I felt at home right away when I returned (after the popcorn attempt) and knew this was the place for me. I think I have stayed for many of the same reasons. Plus, I love my church family.

DCC: That’s awesome. I feel similarly. I just love these people! Ok, let’s dive right in. You are a grief counselor. Whew. How does one get involved in that?

HN: I have my MSW (Masters in Social Work). When I was in grad school there was a class on death and dying. Like ONE SINGLE three-hour evening. During the class people were getting up and leaving, they were so uncomfortable. I found it interesting and thought I needed to explore that.

DCC: Did the reality of what the career entailed hit you differently than you were anticipating?

HN: I think for anyone doing this work, it feels like a calling. It feels like an honor to walk with people as they navigate what feels like their darkest time, knowing there is hope and a future when they are not yet able to see how that could be possible. And then watching them as they discover what their new life looks like. 

DCC: That is so powerful and so humbling to be able to hold space for others in such a tender moment.


Favorite Childhood Memory?

Melaney: When we went to Buffalo to visit friends and I got to swim in one of the fountains and pick up all of the change. (At this point, it should be noted that Melaney rolled her eyes)

DCC: How has grief impacted you and your life?

HN: My brother died when I was in college. It was very difficult for my family. And I lived away from home. I was so isolated at the time. And in the midst of my grief, I questioned everything about my faith. I think I looked fine on the outside but I wasn’t fine at all. It took time for me to heal and work things out with God. I ended up taking time off from school and moving back home. That time allowed me the space I needed to grieve.

DCC: Wow, I’m so sorry. In light of that, what effect has your chosen profession had on your processing of your own grief and helping your friends do the same?

HN: I think like in all professions just because I do it well at work doesn’t always translate to doing it well for the people I love. That said, I can sit with pain and sadness without needing to say anything or fix it. And I recognize talking about the person who died isn’t something to be avoided and often helps.  And I am completely comfortable talking about death and dying. Hopefully that is helpful to the people around me who are grieving?

DCC: Oh, I think so. We’re so conditioned to think that talking about grief is much more harmful than helpful, way more damaging than healing. But I think the opposite is true. Sounds like you do, too!

HN: Yes, definitely!

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Which did you prefer, middle school or high school?

Melaney: I just started high school and I like it better so far. It has less drama and I have a good group of friends which makes school easier.

DCC: Ok, I gotta pause here and take a second to learn everything about this cute cute dog of yours! What’s her name? When did you get her? Whose idea was this? Tell me everything please and thank you!

HN: That is Pepper! She is a five-year-old black lab. I told Melaney we could get a puppy when she was 10 and she held me to it. She is a super sweet dog. We love her.


Which do you prefer, middle school or high school?

HIGH SCHOOL. Middle school was horrid. In high school I settled into my friend group. I was very involved in my youth group at church. They were good years.

DCC: Speaking of Melaney…Tell me about the process of becoming a mother? Is it something you already dreamed about? Did it come out of the blue for you?

HN: I think I always imagined I would be married with children. When that didn’t happen and I turned 40, my desire to be a mom became undeniable. I started exploring all the options. It was actually quite the journey. Even once I decided to be licensed as a foster parent, the process took forever. I know now God’s plan is perfect and the timing was just right for my life and Melaney’s life to intersect.

DCC: I’d love to hear about the first time you met your daughter. What was that day like for you?

HN: Scary, exciting. I remember tearfully praying with Traci at church right before I left to meet her. We met in Wright Park. She was seven years old. She had this long list of questions for me. We played on the play equipment and I answered her questions. When I look back she was so small! I knew immediately I was in for whatever the future held for us. We became an official forever family 18 months later.

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Heather, describe your childhood in three words:

Exploration, Friends, Neighborhood

DCC: That’s PERFECT. Such an amazing unforgettable day.

HN: Actually, Melaney would love to share HER memories of that day, if that’s ok.

DCC: YES, more than ok! Melaney, what do you remember of that moment?

Melaney Neal: When I was in the car on the way to meeting mom, I was very nervous. I didn’t even know what this woman looked like! Me and my foster mom made a giant list of all the questions I had for her, it was on a pink piece of paper and my foster mom let me use her fancy glitter pen to write the questions. Since I moved a lot, I asked mom if I could keep my Barbie dream house. I asked if she had kids in her neighborhood and she said yes but I didn’t believe her until summer time when everyone went outside. I remember playing on the playground and I wanted to do cool tricks to show her that I was cool 😎.


Melaney, describe your childhood in three words:

Horrible. Saved. Peace.

DCC: Wow. That‘s amazing. I feel like I was there! Thank you for sharing that with me. What an honor to hear that.

DCC: Do you think your specific career helps you as a mother?

HN: I think my early work with grieving families helped. I spent a ton of time learning about trauma and understanding how children grieve. It’s different when it’s your own child but I hope it’s helped.

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DCC: Ok, I want to end with this: When we were chatting at the camping trip in August, you told me a cool story about being in small group with Traci and the encouragement she gave you. As you know, this month is our fall Groups Launch and I think it could be encouragement for others as well! Can you reshare it here please? 

HN: Of course! So, I have always been invested in my community and neighbors. There was a season years ago when the street I lived on was really struggling. I felt God wanted me investing in building relationships with my neighbors and building connections and sharing Gods love here in my neighborhood. I was leading a Discovery small group at the same time and I was really pulled because I was trying to do both but it just didn’t feel right. I was walking with Traci and sharing how I wasn’t sure how to both invest in my neighbors AND have the small group. She just looked at me and said “this neighborhood can be your ministry.” It was the FIRST TIME someone said it didn’t have to be either/or. It’s been years since that conversation and I have developed intentional solid relationships with most of my neighbors.

DCC: Yes! Isn't that awesome? It's like a math equation: Where you're ALREADY PLANTED + Who you're ALREADY INVESTING IN + INTENTION = MINISTRY. As a new small group leader myself that lesson will stay with me for years to come as well. Thank you so much for sharing your lives with us and being part of our Disco fam. Grateful for you both!

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