Empowering Veterans in Unconventional Ways

Left to right: Dr. Dana Lebo; Hilary Lithgow; Sam Rodriguez (submitted photo)
Since 2014, Hilary Lithgow, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ English and comparative literature department, has helped lead reading groups for veterans. She uses literature to give shape and form to feelings veterans don’t often know how to express.

“It’s powerful. It’s timeless and universal,” Lithgow said. “That’s what I think the humanities is all about: giving people beautiful and meaningful evocations of our human being that they can better understand themselves through.”

Since the spring of 2023, Lithgow has led book groups for veterans through Carolina’s Transforming Health and Resilience in Veterans Program. THRIVE’s three-week intensive outpatient program aims to create those kinds of moments for veterans and first responders, with the reading group serving as one piece of a holistic treatment for both body and mind.

Part of the Matthew Gfeller Center, THRIVE was established in 2021 with a $12.5 million pledge from the Avalon Action Alliance. The clinical outreach program is dedicated to treating traumatic brain injuries and related health conditions for veterans and first responders, giving them access to a deep team of clinicians ranging from physical therapists to neuropsychologists.

Participants spend roughly 250 to 300 hours with clinicians, and the program leverages expertise from across the UNC System. Lithgow’s reading group is one of the non conventional approaches the program incorporates. Veterans also take part in expressive art therapy, yoga and mindfulness sessions, acupuncture and even equine therapy.

“I go out with them to the farm, and to see the look on their faces afterwards is incredible,” Rodriguez said. “It’s amazing to see the transition. When they get out there, and they’re just around the animals, it changes their personalities. It opens them up a little bit more.”

Written by Michael Lananna, University Communications