Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Chadds Ford resident and CEO supports children and adults with special needs

03/31/2015 02:21PM ● By Richard Gaw


Over the past several years, Shawn O'Brien, a Chadds Ford resident and the President and Chief Executive Officer of Cipher Pharmaceuticals, has seen many stage performances by the Melmark Players in nearby Berwyn.

The theater group is made up of residents of Melmark, a facility that provides residential, educational, vocational and therapeutic services for children and adults with autism, intellectual disabilities and other neurological disorders.

To O'Brien, these performances are as good as Broadway, and in a way, they're better. Over the years, he has come to know many of the actors by name. He meets them before and after shows. He sees the gleam in their eyes when they come out at the end of the plays and musicals and see that the audiences are standing and applauding for them. In many ways, O'Brien is a silent partner in these theatrical performances because for the past eight years, Shawn O'Brien has been one of the quiet leaders who have helped these actors - and hundreds of other people just like them at Melmark -- experience rays of hope and happiness.

"To see them blossom when they perform, and then come out and talk to everyone after the show, is one of the best moments I could have," O'Brien said. "To see the joy in the group is just fantastic. At each performance, there's always a new person. I am amazed at what they can do. It's a real pleasure to experience."

For O'Brien, the appreciation is met with the roll-up-the-sleeves work of helping Melmark achieve its mission. This year marks the seventh year he will serve as co-chair of the Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Classic Advisory Board, who organizes an annual golf tournament that has to date raised more than $3 million for Melmark.

These funds have supported a wide range of projects and services, including new classrooms that provide technology and innovative opportunities; a multi-purpose center with a full-time gymnasium; and program support for education, vocational training and adult services.

O'Brien co-chairs the advisory board with Denny Wilson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Hsiri; and Jim Eaton, Senior Vice President of NAI Geis Realty. O'Brien, Wilson and Eaton lead a group made up of executives from some of the leading biotech and life sciences companies in the area.

On Oct. 5, the 10th Annual Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Classic will attract nearly 300 golfers to three premiere golf courses in the Berwyn area. The Classic was founded by Lee Ahrensdorf and Associates, in memory of the late Hubert J.P. Schoemaker, a pioneer in the life sciences industry, whose eldest daughter lived at Melmark for 28 years.

"We are honored to lead the charge in coordinating the Classic in memory of Hubert," said O'Brien. "When Hubert passed away 11 years ago, we wanted to put something special in place, as a way of bringing the biotech community together to raise money for Melmark. The success and longevity of this event has a direct, positive impact on the families served by Melmark."

Soon after moving with his family to Chadds Ford from Canada in 1999 as an executive with Astra Zeneca, O'Brien began dedicating his time at Melmark through a volunteering effort made by his former employer. After leaving Astra Zeneca in 2004, O'Brien has made sure that whatever company he has been with has provided volunteer leadership to local organizations just like Melmark.

In both his business and his work with Melmark, O'Brien believes in what he calls the three pillars of success -- to improve, to innovate and to transform. When he first began volunteering at Melmark in 2008, it was the height of the economic downturn, and O'Brien saw that the facility was not receiving the resources it needed in order to succeed.

Together with the members of the advisory board, O'Brien began to explore ideas on how to maintain the economic health of the facility, which he said "allows Melmark to continue to improve, innovate and transform."

Volunteerism has become a family trait in the O'Brien household. Daughter Shannon Elizabeth, a 2010 graduate of Unionville High School, worked at Melmark during her college summers, on her way to her degree in speech therapy and dance at George Washington University last year. During her years at Unionville High School, she coordinated the Best Buddies Program, which helps link disabled persons together with able-bodied persons.

"Now, Shannon helps the learning disabled communicate through dance," O'Brien said. "Volunteering has become a family thing, not just something I do myself."

There is another performance group that O'Brien enjoys seeing at Melmark. It's a music group called the Joy Bells, and to O'Brien, the sound the group makes is symbiotic with the people he has come to know.

 "They just want to smile," he said. "They just want to have an ordinary day. At Melmark, it's the nurturing along with the technology that accelerates what the idea of 'Normal' has become for these individuals. Melmark is transforming them from having nothing in their life to being able to enjoy things."

The Schoemaker Classic will be played at the Waynesborough Country Club, the St. Davids Golf Club and the Gulph Mills Golf Club, and will also include a cocktail reception, silent auction, live auction and dinner, at the Waynesborough Country Club. For more information about the event, including sponsorship opportunities, visit, or call Ellen Donohue, Melmark's Vice President for Advancement, at 610-325-4996.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Chester County's free newsletter to catch every headline