“We all need help sometimes,” Shannon explains, “and that’s OK, but the biggest success is seeing a child transform and seeing the joy in the parents’ face for all those little steps that most of us take for granted.”
In the early 1990s, Shannon Schafer was working at a job she hated when she decided to make a change. Now, Shannon and her husband Jon run Schafer Sports Center in Ewing, New Jersey, which provides a wide variety of programming for all children, but has a special focus on programs for students with special needs.
“This was not on my radar at all,” she explained. “But things happen how they’re supposed to happen, and when they’re supposed to happen. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
For Shannon, her journey to the new, state of the art athletic complex started in South Carolina, where she and her brother were raised by their single mom. After graduating from South Carolina State University with a degree in business and accounting, she moved to New Jersey to stay with her grandmother while she looked for full time employment. She found work in New York City in her degree field, but didn’t find the work challenging or interesting, so she switched careers. Shannon was working as a fitness director at Gold’s Gym when she met her husband John.
After she and John got married, they joined forces to operate a gymnastics center in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. John developed his interest in gymnastics later in life, and continued to focus on gymnastics throughout college. His motto is that working hard and having a strong work ethic is more important than talent, and this guided their gymnastics program and led to a higher than average program acceptance rate. Shannon says, “We are a judgment-free zone.”
So when the mother of a child with special needs approached them a few years later about the possibility of having her son join their program, they didn’t give it a second thought. “It was the right thing to do,” Shannon explained. “She wanted her child to participate in something and everyone kept telling her no. I put myself in her shoes and once I saw the need, my dream was to have an inclusive program for everyone.”
Over the years that followed, their program grew to encompass more than just gymnastics, and they purchased a parcel a land where the current 37,000 square foot sports center now sits. For 14 years, their family, which includes sons Logan (age 15) and Landon (age 12), sacrificed to build the new facility. In 2016, the struggle became a reality when they opened the new Schafer Sports Center.
Now, every program at Schafer is open to students with special needs or the same program is offered especially for students with special needs. This includes parent’s night out events twice a month, gymnastics, soccer, birthday parties, dance, swimming, and summer camps. “I’m not a fan of the word never,” Shannon says. “When someone says a kid can’t do something, like walk, or run, or ride a bike, it challenges me to prove them wrong.”
But safety always comes first at Schafer. Before beginning any type of programming, children with special needs first undergo a program assessment by Shannon, in which she evaluates a student’s interests, abilities, and areas of challenge before working with the family to recommending a program path. “We all need help sometimes,” Shannon explains, “and that’s OK, but the biggest success is seeing a child transform and seeing the joy in the parents’ face for all those little steps that most of us take for granted.”
In addition to running Schafer, Shannon coaches students for the Special Olympics gymnastics team, and offers a free walking club to anyone with disabilities. Special Olympics programs such as Striders, which teaches bike riding, and Young Athletes are also offered – free of charge – at Schafer. The facility also offers SPAN parent workshops, and a free infant swimming program offered in collaboration with Capital Health. They host special needs classes from local schools during the day for field trips or therapy. In April, to recognize Autism Awareness month, Schafer is hosting a variety of activities for parents and children in the special needs community. “When you get into the community, it’s amazing what kind of change can happen,” Shannon says.
Even with all these programs, Shannon hasn’t stopped thinking big or dreaming about what’s next. When one of her former child students came back as an adult looking for meaningful employment, Shannon hired her immediately and started thinking about what happens to disabled kids when they become adults. “Where do they go? What do they do?” she wondered.
The answers aren’t always positive, so she’s starting a nonprofit organization called We Care Special Sports to help provide more services for those with special needs at a reduced cost. One area of focus for her is obesity. Another is living accommodations. “My next big challenge is a campus with housing for adult with disabilities.”
“My mind is always running, thinking of new ideas,” she says. “Doing this brings me joy.” And her students and parents couldn’t agree more. According to grandparent, Bobbie Brown, “I am thrilled that Schafer Sports Center will offer swimming for special needs children. Water safety and drowning prevention is important for every child to learn. My grandson is autistic, and he loves water. I am glad that he will have the opportunity to learn the fundamental skills of swimming, and will enjoy water in a safe and comfortable environment”.