Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Wednesday, August 11th, 2010 marked the one year anniversary of the passing of the visionary Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics founder, Best Buddies supporter, and champion of all people with intellectual disabilities. In celebration and honor of her life’s work and legacy, Special Olympics and Best Buddies are inviting people across the world join in the first-ever “Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day” (EKS Day) on September 25th which will promote a global call for people to commit actions of inclusion, acceptance, and unity for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver devoted her life to fighting for the rights of those with intellectual disabilities. She believed everyone deserved respect. She opened her home, she coached, and above all, she was a friend to all she referred to as her “special friends.” The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day message calls for people to continue these acts of inclusion for those with intellectual disabilities; in essence to “play on” and continue her work and legacy. The fourth Saturday of September will be an annual event to celebrate her life and impact, to share her story, to inspire new fans to action, and to unify communities around the world. Hundreds of events will take place all over the world on September 25th to honor Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Some of the notable events include:
- FIFA Football for Hope™ Center in Namibia will be dedicated in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s name
- Unified Sports® events with Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in Calcutta and Delhi, India
- Special Olympics Camp Shriver events will be held in East Timor, Haiti and Malaysia
- U.S. Soccer Foundation field dedication at the Washington, D.C Friendship Charter School
- Special Olympics Healthy Athletes screenings for those with intellectual disabilities will take place in over 20 countries
“This day will bring a hopeful future of inclusion and action that will build communities throughout the world,” shared Special Olympics Chairman and CEO, Timothy P. Shriver. “All of these acts and events are not merely an honor to my mother’s great legacy but they are also about embracing the movement she started, to inspire new fans to get involved. I can only hope that this day becomes an annual celebration of people demonstrating their willingness to accept and include people with intellectual disabilities. “My mother’s lifelong commitment to people with intellectual disabilities taught me that there is no greater joy in life than the joy that comes from contributing your time and energy to the enhancement of another person’s life,” said Anthony K. Shriver, Best Buddies Founder and Chairman. “So, I cannot think of a more fitting way to celebrate her life and legacy than to encourage acts of volunteerism that will teach people to see their peers with intellectual disabilities as classmates, as teammates, as colleagues, as friends – and most importantly – as equals. Ultimately, I hope that this day will put us one step closer to the world she envisioned; a world in which people with intellectual disabilities are fully integrated into society.”
Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s actions helped open the minds of all people to the gifts and talents of individuals with intellectual disabilities. She demonstrated an unrelenting indomitable spirit in action that one person can make a difference and change the world. Her lasting legacy must be a continued commitment to improve and transform the lives of the 200 million people worldwide with intellectual disabilities, many of whom still live with diminished opportunities and social disrespect, and are often neglected and hidden away.
Born into a family of immense wealth and power, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the middle child of nine in this country’s version of a royal family, yet she chose to lobby for the powerless. Yes, she used her connections from time to time. But she never exerted her influence for her own gain: she used it to help those who were invisible or perceived to be an embarrassment by society.
Shriver was committed to improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities in large part because of her older sister, Rosemary, who had “a mild form of mental retardation,” in the parlance of the day.
A good athlete and fierce competitor in her own right, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was frustrated by the lack of athletic opportunities for women in the 1930s and ‘40s. Her daughter, Maria would note that her mother “took adversity and turned it into advantage.” Inspired by the rejection she saw many women face, especially her sister Rosemary, her mother, and other mothers of special children, she turned that into her life’s focus and her life’s passion and mission.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver took action. She wrote a groundbreaking article for The Saturday Evening Post about her sister and the plight of people with intellectual disabilities. With the blessing of her brother, President Kennedy, she shared her own family’s story for the first time to open the door for other families.
That same year, she used funds from the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation, (started by her father, Joseph, and mother, Rose) to create programs for people with intellectual disabilities, including the first “Camp Shriver” in her own backyard in Maryland and helped finance a dozen or so similar camps around the country. These camps not only tested her theories about the benefits people with intellectual disabilities could derive from participation in athletic activity, but would later serve as the model for Special Olympics.
“She believed that people with intellectual disabilities could – individually and collectively – achieve more than anyone thought possible. This much she knew with unbridled faith and certainty,” said her son Timothy, now Chairman of Special Olympics.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw a way to expand opportunities and raise awareness for her “special friends”. Although only seven weeks after the assassination of her brother, Robert F. Kennedy, Shriver carried on: On a steamy July day at Chicago’s Soldier Field, 1,000 athletes from the United States and Canada took part in the very first Special Olympics Games. It was at those Games that Shriver uttered the words that millions of Special Olympics athletes have recited since: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” These words were more than the athletes’ oath to themselves; it embodied Shriver’s spirit and the burgeoning grassroots movement that battled against prejudice and intolerance to change the world.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley attended those first Games in 1968 and told Shriver, “You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this.”
Skeptics shook their heads and most of the press ignored this unprecedented competition, yet Shriver boldly predicted that one million of the world’s people with intellectual disabilities would someday compete athletically.
Forty-two years later, Special Olympics has grown from a modest program serving local athletes to become the world’s largest movement dedicated to promoting respect, acceptance, inclusion, and human dignity for people with intellectual disabilities through sports.
Special Olympics currently serves nearly 3.5 million athletes in 226 Programs across more than 170 countries, offers 32 Olympic type summer and winter sports and holds more than 44,000 competitions annually, with the help of the more than 805,000 volunteers and nearly 250,000 coaches who supported Special Olympics athletes globally. Education, health, societal inclusion, and employment opportunities have all changed for people with intellectual disabilities as a result of Shriver’s vision; more importantly, so have minds, attitudes and laws.
For people with intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics is a means to achieve physical fitness, self-esteem, socialization skills, and the life skills necessary to become productive, accepted and contributing members of their communities.
Athletes of all ages, abilities and backgrounds compete year round in Olympic-type team and individual sports, and are trained by volunteer coaches. And because Special Olympics never charge its athletes or their families a fee for participation, no one is left on the sidelines due to economic factors.
“I think that really the only way you change people’s attitudes or behavior is to work with them,” Shriver once said. She was known for her willingness to lend a hand, work side by side with the athletes, and listen to parents and heads of state alike. So it is fitting that Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day provides all of us the opportunity to celebrate her life and those she championed, by engaging in simple acts of compassion, acceptance and action.
For more information or to share your Eunice Kennedy Shriver Act of Unity, visit www.eunicekennedyshriver.org. All of the many global Eunice Kennedy Shriver Acts of Unity that have been pledged to date can also be found at that website. To become involved where you live and to help carry on Shriver’s legacy, visit www.specialolympics.org.
This post originally appeared on our September/October 2010 Magazine