Leilani Shaffer-Gudjohnsen has a few simple rules for her Special Olympics Northern California (SONC) athletes.
Rule #1: HAVE FUN.
Rule #2: Listen to the coaches.
Rule #3? There is no Rule #3… it’s all about having fun and experiencing the positive joys of sports.
Shaffer-Gudjohnsen, a 15-year volunteer for SONC, was recently honored as one of the 2018 inductees to the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame (WHOF) in recognition of her service to Special Olympics and her commitment to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Shaffer-Gudjohnsen dedicates her time as a coach, administrator, mentor and informal program coordinator within Alameda County. She has worked tirelessly to expand SONC’s impact within the county, specifically reaching out to athletes from a younger demographic, and has helped to grow participation by 30 percent in the last few years.
“Anyone who coaches knows about all of the hours spent behind the scenes, before and after practices, to create the most positive experience possible for each of our athletes,” said Shaffer-Gudjohnsen. “Receiving this WHOF award affirms that I do make a difference in these athletes lives.”
Shaffer-Gudjohnsen’s involvement with SONC was initially motivated by a desire to find a sports program for her son, Jake, who has an intellectual disability. She believes in the life lessons that sports can teach – including hard work, personal responsibility, teamwork and self-confidence – and is passionate about giving Jake every opportunity to succeed in life. Jake has excelled through SONC, even representing Team USA at the 2011 Special Olympics World Games in Greece, and now lives independently and is a contributing member of the community.
“Leilani started this journey as a parent in search of resources for her son,” said Belinda Sullivan, director of volunteer services for SONC. “But in finding Special Olympics – an organization which shares her same vision of inclusion, acceptance and independence for her son – she found the vehicle that would lead her to become one of our most effective advocates.”
Shaffer-Gudjohnsen has been an instrumental figure on the fundraising side of things, as well, and has generated roughly $15,000 for SONC over the years through events like the Polar Plunge, Tip-A-Cop and others.
“For people who have children with intellectual disabilities, a focus on limitations is the norm,” said Kris Gudjohnsen, a fellow SONC coach that Leilani met through the program and who later became her husband. “Leilani, on the other hand, only sees possibilities. The word ‘can’t’ does not exist in her vocabulary.”
The WHOF recognizes outstanding women for their achievements and contributions to Alameda County and its residents. The program honors women in 13 different categories each year and has inducted 200 deserving women since 1993. Click here to watch Shaffer-Gudjohnsen’s WHOF video and learn more about the other honorees.