Chaplain Shelly Pinomaki survived trauma to help others in crisis


Shelly Pinomaki is nothing if not a survivor.

Recently named 2023’s San Diego Sheriff’s Department Outstanding Volunteer, Pinomaki has suffered an alcoholic mother’s abuse, endured her younger sister’s kidnapping and murder, and lived through an abusive first marriage.

Happy today in a successful second marriage with three grown sons, she taps into her past experiences to serve crime victims, disaster survivors, and first responders as a sheriff’s chaplain and a crisis response specialist.

Despite the pain, she grateful for everything that’s happened to her.

“It was pivotal in my life – so that caring for others and supporting my community in crisis has become my life’s work,” she said.

“I’m well adjusted,” Pinomaki continues. “I have such a great perspective.”

The Volunteer of the Year citation notes that Pinomaki “is an outstanding volunteer that operates quietly in the background, providing support and encouragement to the department,” while supporting the RESPECT Project, an outreach program for at-risk youth, and serving on the Wellness Team Board, Field Liaison Officer Unit, and as a department crisis response specialist.”

“Shelly’s expertise in trauma and crisis fields have led her to become an instructor with The Innocent Justice Project, teaching wellness and trauma informed care for law enforcement across the country,” the citation continues. “Her additional volunteer work included the San Diego Trauma Intervention Program.”

Shelly Pinomaki was named 2023’s San Diego Sheriff’s Department Outstanding Volunteer.
Photo provided by Shelly Pinomaki

In addition, she appears as a trauma management speaker, and at crisis-related incidents, contributing 1,393 hours of volunteer work in 2022.

Growing up in rural Jamul in San Diego’s east county, Pinomaki vowed to leave home as soon as possible.

“I’m an ’83 graduate of Valhalla High School,” says Pinomaki, now a Poway resident. “I moved out of the house three days after graduation; I knew I had to leave as soon as I could for self-preservation.”

In the midst of coping with suicidal thoughts and depression which she suffered partially as a result of her mother’s alcoholism, she worked full-time during her senior year and learned typesetting and graphic design as part of the school’s ROP program.

“I always wanted to go to college and be a teacher, but my parents said no,” she remembers. At the time, she didn’t know about scholarships or other financial aid opportunities.

Still, she doesn’t hold her mother responsible for her abusive childhood.

“It’s a cycle,” she explains. “When you don’t know how to parent, you parent the way you were parented. I was a child conceived on purpose [so that she could]get married; she was only 15 when she had me – a child trying to raise a child.”

And Pinomaki says she was blamed for all the things that went wrong in her mother’s life.

“She didn’t finish high school, didn’t go to the prom. So, because I was the one that received the blunt end of her own traumatic experiences, I learned how to survive early on.”

Much later, her own family’s horrible experience with brutal crime led her to minister to first responders – and continues to motivate her work.

A 2020 finalist in FOX 5’s Remarkable Women Initiative, at age 46 Pinomaki lost her sister – who was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered during Christmas 2011 – and experienced additional trauma inflicted on her family by first responders who were not trained in assisting victims and their families.

“The law enforcement officers are so busy taking care of the case that the people and loved ones are traumatized again through the process,” she observes. “They must learn to do their work without injuring the family members.”

To this day, she says, her family members remain traumatized by the incident and its aftermath – wounds she cannot help heal.

In contrast, Pinomaki threw herself into learning to care for others in crisis. She’s certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, an expert in trauma care, and the founder of Seeking Hope, an organization that teaches teams to care for others in crisis.

“My sister’s murder was horrible, but in the midst of that tragedy I’ve been able to serve hundreds if not thousands of people to create lives of abundance,” she says.

Because of her expertise, the Sheriff’s Department sought her out; now she is an ordained chaplain working as both a Family Liaison Officer and with traumatized first responders. She and her supervisor oversee the chaplain crisis response team.

Recognized for her chaplaincy work during the Poway synagogue tragedy, she says she has learned to see the worst of humanity and still find the hope to move forward.

Pinomaki values her opportunity as a chaplain to care for the spirits of those who serve on the front lines of crises.

“Chaplaincy is 100 percent relationship-based,” she says. “In a militaristic culture, it’s important that they feel they have a sounding board.”

“They are just people doing a job,” she adds. “They don’t make the laws but must enforce them. They’re just people, with families, children, divorces, and parents. Yet they are held to a high standard and it can be so stressful…My job is to remind them that this happens to be your job but it’s not who you are.”

In working with crime victims, she says, “I hold a lantern to light their way until their own becomes bright enough. I call myself a rent-a-friend. I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but I’m here to stabilize you and get you the resources for the help you need.”

Professionally, Pinomaki worked at the University of San Diego for 10 years before founding her own company, Pinomaki Design. She and her husband, Wayne, are grandparents of two baby girls and longtime members of the Church of Rancho Bernardo.

She says her Christian faith plays a huge part in her success.

“I don’t do anything in my life without praying about it first. I’m enmeshed with Christ – I ask Him, ‘what do you want from me in this?’”

“If I’m right with God everything else is going to be OK,” Pinomaki says. “If I have my faith, the armor of God, I can accomplish and survive anything.”

In the midst of ministering to others, she adds, it’s important to regroup and minister to herself. “You can’t give from an empty bucket,” she says.

“I’m constantly in prayer and I ask people to pray for me,” she observes. “I must force myself to be quiet and refill myself.”

With all her accomplishments, Pinomaki says, “I want it said in my eulogy, ‘she put her faith first and walked in faith to accomplish her mission on Earth.’”