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Gainesville woman's time given freely to 2 causes
Schneider volunteers for Challenged Child, Relay for Life
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Gail Schneider started volunteering in her early 20s. Schneider volunteers for organizations such as Relay for Life and Challenged Child and Friends. She also volunteers at her church, Gainesville First United Methodist and at her son's school, Chestatee High School. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The giving spirit
This holiday season, The Times has spotlighted a person or couple who give of themselves to help others in the community. Today, Gail Schneider, who barely has a spare moment between volunteering with Challenged Child and Friends and Relay for Life.

Challenged Child and Friends

Monetary donations can be mailed to Challenged Child and Friends, P.O. Box 5758, Gainesville. For other donations and volunteer or employment opportunities, contact David Earnest at david@challengedchild.org or visit the website.

Relay for Life

Monetary donations can be mailed to the Gainesville office, 2565 Thompson Bridge Road Suite 114. For other donations and volunteer opportunities, contact 770-297-1176 or visit the website

Gail Schneider has a magnet on her refrigerator that says, "Stop me before I volunteer again."

And with good reason: There are not many nights she's not working on something.

"I started volunteering when I was in my early 20s and for the Olympics - at the time, I worked with NationsBank, which is now Bank of America - you had to earn your way into volunteering at the Olympics," Schneider said. "I got to be supervisor at the Olympics in 1996 and we trained at the Olympic trials."

She's got a huge multiphoto frame filled with pictures, pins and a piece of the track to commemorate what she calls "the neatest thing I got to do."

It's hard to quantify how many hours a week Schneider spends volunteering.

She works at booster club concessions and events at Chestatee High School, where her youngest son attends.

She volunteers at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, where she works during their monthly Living Waters service and as an usher. She's also on the prayer ministry there.

"My church supports

Challenged Child and Friends and Relay for Life," Schneider said. "It's nice to know that my church's passion is the same as mine."

Though she grew up in Macon and her background is in the banking business, she now works for Bob Buisson, founder of Primerica, an independent financial services marketing company, both as his personal assistant and as a Primerica district leader.

When she's not at the office, Schnieder keeps busy fundraising and helping to plan events for the two groups closest to her heart.

The challenge of changing lives

When Schneider first came to work in Gainesville, she worked for Wachovia and asked her manager what to get involved in. He told her to find something she was passionate about.

"A friend of mine that I worked with, her nephew was at Challenged Child. At the time, he was 5 and he had a brain tumor," Schneider said. "She said, ‘You've got to come see this place and see my nephew.'"

So Schneider went, and never really left.

"I was on the board for probably 10 years. When I left the board I was co-chair and I left to go to work. We hired a new executive director and she asked me to go work there," Schneider said. "I worked as executive assistant and then I worked in fundraising."

Challenged Child and Friends serves kids ages 6 weeks to 6 years in 19 counties in Georgia. There are nurses and a variety of speech, occupational and physical therapists on staff, working with teachers in their classrooms.

She said the organization helps kids from all walks of life, including those who are born with a medical disorder, kids who've been seriously injured in accidents and typical children as well.

"There's a little girl who runs around the playground. We had some golfers come and they couldn't believe she was blind because she knew that playground really well," Schneider said. "She'd go to the sandbox and she would do her foot to feel for the edge of it. That's about the only way you can tell."

The playground at Challenged Child is equipped so children in wheelchairs can get around and play, too.

Schneider is proud of everything the organization is able to accomplish, but a few success stories stand out in her mind.

"There's a little boy who went there who they didn't think could do anything. He had muscular dystrophy and he had been just laying in a crib. His head was flat because he'd been laying flat so long," she said.

Then the boy came to Challenged Child.

"He learned to walk," Schneider said. "They have this amazing piece of equipment they can strap him in and he could move his legs and it would roll down the hallway with him. The look on his face when he gets to walk down the hall, it was just amazing. Now he's got a computer that helps him communicate, he flirts with the girls, he's doing so many things his grandmother thought he could never do."

A point of pride is that her oldest son and daughter both work at Challenged Child as well.

"My daughter teaches at Challenged Child, and they love it," she said. "My son has an ability with these kids, even a child who has a behavior problem. He'll tell me, ‘Mom, I don't know who this kid they're telling me about is, because I don't see that kid.'"

Most of her work with Challenged Child revolves around fundraising for its big events, including the Festival of Trees and Rock in the Spring.

"It's in my heart. I love the kids," Schneider said. "When you walk into the door and you see those kids, they've got you. ... To me, leaving Challenged Child would be like leaving those kids, and I'll never leave them."

Why Schneider relays

Schneider volunteers with Relay for Life to honor those whose bodies may have left Earth, but whose spirits soar on.

"My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 45. Her sister at the same time had breast cancer and she'd had it for like, 10 years," Schneider said. "Then their dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, so they all had three different cancers at the same time and they all died very close together."

She lost all three, plus her father, in less than a year. Her small blessing was the birth of her oldest son.

She knew then she needed to do something. Her resolve was strengthened shortly after, when her sister was diagnosed with both ovarian and uterine cancers.

Schneider had a full hysterectomy herself, despite doctors' claims she only had an 11 percent chance of getting the same cancer she lost two of her relatives to.

Schneider started out with Relay eight years ago when it was at Johnson High School. It then moved to Chestatee High, then Flowery Branch High and has settled now at Road Atlanta in Braselton. She's in her fourth year as co-chairwoman of the event, which draws between 15,000 and 17,000 annually.

Her goals with the organization are many, but most of all, to find a cure.

Every year, scientists and doctors get closer. It's something Schneider's seen firsthand.

"It was just a horrible, horrible experience for those three to go through. They couldn't eat, they were always sick," she said. "When my sister was diagnosed, when she went for her first treatment, she slept for a week. I think she was afraid to wake up because she had seen what they'd gone through. The medication differences were tremendous.

"My mom lived a year and three months with the same cancer my sister lived over five years with. ... I can see the differences in the research and the drugs form 27 years ago to five years ago."

Schneider spends countless hours every year working on Relay for Life and other events for the American Cancer Society and Challenged Child. She wants her involvement to inspire others, especially her children, into volunteering because she knows the differences it can make.

And through it all, losing so many of her family, and knowing children at Challenged Child who've passed away, Schneider's faith never wavers. She turns to Romans and 1 Peter in the Bible to reaffirm her belief that volunteering is what she is truly called to do.

"God has gifted each of us with abilities so we can make a contribution to his kingdom. Don't wait to be recruited, but look for opportunities to volunteer," she said. "Each one of us should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace."

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