The Heart of University Beat
The person behind the popular WUSF news segments enriches his life through volunteering.
Enjoying a cruise on Lake Bloomington, where the Timber Pointe Outdoor Center is located in Hudson, Ill.: (from l-r) Linda Chandler, Aly Austin, WUSF’s Mark Schreiner, Jeff Pickert, Mike Ryan and wife, Peggy Noble Ryan.
TAMPA, Fla. (June 25, 2013) – Adults with physical disabilities are often neglected and forgotten by society – but not by WUSF’s University Beat Correspondent Mark Schreiner. He was made aware of their need for something as simple as fun when he was just in high school.
Recruited to spend a week as a volunteer attendant at a special camp program more than two decades ago, he discovered a group of people who would become a treasured and lasting part of his life.
What opened him up to this experience was witnessing the swift and heart-wrenching decline of his uncle, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while just in his 30s. It shook Schreiner’s world when he was still a child.
“He went from playing softball with his friends to being slumped in a wheelchair. In less than five years he had died,” he said, still unsettled by the memory. “I saw how it affected his family and our family. That experience opened my eyes.”
Posters in his high school calling for volunteers for the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s (MDA) summer camp moved him to offer his time. He was surprised to find himself working with a young man featured in one of the posters.
“When I met him he was a teenager and he was surprised to know they were still using a picture taken when he was just a kid,” Schreiner said. “When I saw firsthand how important the program was to him over the years and the rest of the kids, I knew I had made the right decision. I had the time and the ability to help, so I did.
“Going to this camp is the highlight of the year for many of the campers,” Schreiner added. “Sometimes this is their only chance to do these kinds of outdoor activities.”
A major change was in the works, though. MDA decided to stop accepting people over the age of 21 and only offer its camp for children under that age. A small dedicated group of volunteers decided to step in and Association of Horizon, Inc. was born.
“They literally said, ‘We need to do something for these people, we can’t cut them off,’ and they did it,” Schreiner said. He liked hanging out with adults and people closer to his own age, so he decided to go with this new group.
Ever since 1992, more than 100 volunteers have been getting together once a year, for one week, to bring joy into the lives of around 90 campers with physical disabilities including muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. The camp is located in central Illinois and draws campers primarily from throughout the state as well as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana and as far away as Colorado and New York.
Between high school, college and moving to Florida, Schreiner worked as an attendant, their name for camp counselor. He recruited volunteers, helped with the camp’s public relations through his media contacts, produced videos and organized fundraising parties and other activities. He ended up on the board of directors – still another volunteer position.
“There are only two paid staff members who keep things going throughout the year,” he pointed out. “A pair of operations managers, Mike Trimpe and Gen Skudney, who are also campers, I’ve been friends with them for 20 years.”
Still in contact with these and other friends he made among the staff and the campers, after moving to Florida, Schreiner continued supporting Horizon, though from a distance.
“Friendly pressure” pushed him to attend the 20th Anniversary celebration two summers ago. “Kathy Kingston, the woman who recruited me to my first camp in 1989 led the charge on Facebook. I still tell her, ‘You ended up recruiting me twice!’”
Once there, “A flood of memories came pouring back and I realized how much I missed it.”
One camper in particular reminded him why.
“I was paired with a first-time camper, Jeff White. He’s 41, but this was his first time riding a horse, first time singing karaoke, first time in a swimming pool. Every day, he took these things on with the biggest smile on his face and I knew, this is the reason I came back.”
He also saw “folks I helped recruit 15 and 20 years ago now running the camp and in one case the son of a fellow volunteer was there working just like I was 20 years ago.”
Schreiner is going back this summer to volunteer as a team leader. He will be overseeing a group of about four or five campers, along with their volunteer attendants, “making sure everyone is staying safe and having a good time. I was a team leader for about five or six years in the 1990s, so it’s probably some sort of Association of Horizon record of 15 years in between stints as a team leader.
“Another friend at Horizon, Donnie Flynn, says, ‘The days are long but the week is short,’ and I couldn’t agree with him more,” Schreiner said. “We’re up at 6 a.m. and working until sometimes 2 a.m. – depending on how young you are, that is. Some of us can’t stay up that late anymore.”
Over the years, whether he’s been there in person or not, Horizon has remained a part of Schreiner’s life. He has continued to help raise funds and raise attention. Most recently, he’s been helping with a year-long raffle that awards prizes every week of the year. Financial support pays for renting the camp, which is used by various groups throughout the summer, as well as special equipment, food and supplies.
Schreiner first volunteered for camp with his twin brother, Matthew, and eventually got his father to support it as well.
“When my father saw how important it was for my brother and me, he said, ‘to see my two sons who can’t keep their rooms clean working this hard’ made him exceptionally proud and he had to contribute.”
Schreiner and his brother were born in Chicago to two police officers. Their father, Larry Schreiner, became what Mark describes as a “blood-and-guts reporter” once he retired from the police force. The well-known and highly respected reporter, whose scoops include the infamous John Wayne Gacy serial murder case and the Tylenol murders, for radio station WGN, inspired Schreiner to go into broadcasting.
A graduate of Columbia College, Schreiner worked at a variety of Chicago area media outlets before coming to Florida. He worked at WHNZ 1250 AM before landing the job as WUSF’s reporter/producer for “University Beat.”
In a matter of five minutes each week Schreiner tells USF’s most fascinating stories Tuesdays on WUSF 89.7FM during "Morning Edition" after the 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. newscasts and during "All Things Considered" at 5:44 p.m. His reports are also played after "Florida Matters" on WSMR 89.1 and 103.9 FM Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and on WUSF-TV Tuesdays at 11:55 a.m. and 8:55 p.m.
“I love working on University Beat. USF has 47,000 students and 16,000 faculty, so there’s never a shortage of fascinating stories to tell.”
Even with his busy life and after volunteering for the first time more than 20 years ago, Schreiner’s experiences with Horizon will never leave him
“I’ve learned a lot of great life lessons and the whole thing has given so much to me. I’ve learned about myself and other people. I’ve met people who are immensely sharp; they simply can’t take care of themselves in the ways we take for granted. I’ve learned to be grateful for what I have in the way of physical capabilities – not to take them for granted. Just being able to stand up in the morning and walk, simply because I can, I’m grateful I can do what I do each and every day.”
He encourages people to help others in any way they can. The necessary qualities are “patience, openness, willingness to have fun, willingness to be yourself, and do it as something enjoyable – not as a thankless job. It can really be a great experience.”
Schreiner loves the sentiment, “whoever said it first, sometimes attributed to UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, ‘You cannot realize a full life until you do something for someone who will never be able to repay you.’ It’s so true, but hard to explain. There’s no way they can repay you, yet it’s perfectly alright.”
Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.