Eunice Kennedy Shriver died this week at the age of 88. This younger
sibling and special friend of the late President John F. Kennedy left
five children, 19 grandchildren, and a devoted husband, this country's
first Peace Corps Director, Sargent Shriver. Most importantly, Eunice
Shriver left a vibrant global legacy: a world where developmentally
disabled children and adults now live with dignity and the real
promise of productive lives.
Eunice Shriver's legacy is profound -- and more important in its
long-term humanitarian impact than all the accomplishments of a
Kennedy family that has been such a vital part of this country's
In the early 1960's, as a Georgetown University undergraduate, I
watched first hand as the tireless sister of the 35th President
pioneered the use of sports -- including horseback riding -- to
demonstrate how mentally challenged children could succeed.
In those days, mentally challenged children were largely out-of-sight,
hidden away because of the pervasive stigma associated with their
limitations. The prospect of these youngsters succeeding at anything
-- especially sports -- was viewed as preposterous.
But it wasn't preposterous to Eunice Shriver. Through her summer camp
for challenged youngsters at Timberlawn, the Shriver's Rockville,
Maryland estate, and through an annual accredited Maryland horseshow
at Timberlawn staffed by those youngsters, the press began to
appreciate the validity of Eunice Shriver's vision about the mentally
challenged: if given a chance, this scorned segment of our national
population had enormous untapped potential.
On Capitol Hill and in State Houses across the country, Eunice Shriver
seized every opportunity to use her Kennedy family status to persuade
policy makers to recognize the long neglected legal rights of the
developmentally disabled. Because of her relentless advocacy, laws
were enacted at the federal and state level, and courts began to
recognize that the Constitution did, in fact, apply to this country's
I was there on a hot July day in 1968, just weeks after her younger
brother Bobby died of an assassin's bullet, Eunice Shriver walked
through Chicago's Soldiers Field, enthusiastically cheering on
hundreds of mentally challenged youngsters participating in the first
Special Olympics. Despite her grief, Eunice Shriver was determined to
create an exciting national media event that would showcase the
unlimited potential of mentally challenged youngsters. And despite
initial cynicism about an "Olympics for the retarded?" the first
Special Olympics proved to be an exhilarating event for the hundreds
of exhausted young athletes and the thousands of volunteers energized
by Eunice Shriver.
In December 1968, as the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to France, Eunice
Shriver persuaded the very private Madame Charles de Gaulle, wife of
France's President, to attend a televised Christmas party for mentally
challenged youngsters at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Paris. As
newlywed house guests of the rambunctious Shriver family, my wife and
I marveled at Mrs. Shriver's media savvy in recruiting the French
President's wife to help open the minds and hearts of French citizens
who hid their developmentally disabled children from public view.
Ironically, the public had no knowledge of the De Gaulle's deceased
mentally challenged daughter, Anne. When French television aired
footage of the animated children interacting with the puppeteers and
Madame de Gaulle, Eunice Shriver shattered another taboo: she showed
viewers throughout France that these children could laugh and play,
just like "normal" kids.
Throughout the past five decades, as the pivotal force behind the
Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, Eunice Shriver aggressively used
her senior sibling status in the Kennedy clan to direct millions of
dollars into medical research to benefit the developmentally disabled.
And as officials know at countless medical institutions across this
nation, no one could get more bang from her family's foundation
dollars than Eunice Shriver.
Today, the Special Olympics have become a global success -- annually
attracting tens of thousands of spirited mentally challenged
competitors to games in 165 countries. Importantly, regardless of who
wins a gold medal, every Special Olympics from Capetown to Chicago has
been a self esteem enhancing adventure for these young athletes.
Beyond the obvious success of the Special Olympics, these
international games also have been the catalyst for a global cultural
change in attitude: today's mentally challenged children and adults
in this country - and throughout the globe, enjoy lives full of
dignity, acceptability and hope. For countless future generations of
developmentally disabled women and men, they too will live in a world
where their lives can be productive and joyful, thanks to Eunice