July 10, 1921
Her dream was to give a voice to those who could not speak for themselves, to give hope to those who just wanted to belong. Her devotion and passion was driven by the memory of her sister.
She was born on July 10, 1921, to a prominent, well-known family, but the family held a secret.
She wrote that her family realized that her sister “was different. She was slower to crawl, slower to walk and speak than her two bright brothers. My mother was told she would catch up later, but she never did.”
She remembers her sister crying at night because she thought she was not like everyone else and was unable to accomplish the goals set out for her, she felt she didn’t belong.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver cared deeply about her sister, Rosemary, but back then, children born with intellectual disabilities were never given a chance, they were never included in life’s activities. Often, people with disabilities would be put in sanitariums or mental institutions long-term.
Like her brothers, Eunice Kennedy Shriver wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, lives which would have otherwise be ignored. Her father, however, put all his focus on his sons. One time, she would write her father a note, writing, “Dear Daddy, I know you are very busy. I also know you are advising everyone else in that house on their careers, so why not me?”
Using her sister as an inspiration, she would eventually make her own mark, advancing “one of the great civil rights movements, on behalf of millions of people across the world with intellectual disabilities,” according to writer Erin Blakemore.
In the early 60s, when she was doing advocacy work for people with intellectual disabilities, a woman asked her what to do about her child, who had been rejected from summer camp because of his disabilities.
“I said, ‘You don’t have to talk about it anymore,” Eunice later recalled. “You come here a month from today. I’ll start my own camp. No charge to go into the camp, but you have to get your kid here, and you have to come and pick your kid up.’” She set up the camp at Timberlawn, a Kennedy property in Maryland, and called it Camp Shriver.
According to Blakemore, “for four years, she invited children with intellectual and other disabilities to her house, free of charge, recruited local high school students to act as counselors, and provided lessons and recreational activities. Children who had always been excluded from group activities thrived in the accepting environment, and Eunice was encouraged by their progress. “I suppose the fact that I had seen my sister swim like a deer — in swimming races — and do very, very well just always made me think that [people with disabilities] could do everything.”
She also went public with her sister’s struggle, writing in the Saturday Evening Post in 1962, “We are just coming out of the dark ages in our handling of this serious national problem. Twenty years ago, when my sister entered an institution, it was most unusual for anyone to discuss this problem in terms of hope. But the weary fatalism of those days is no longer justified.”
Camp Shriver would grow, sharing awareness worldwide of the struggle for rights and acceptance for people with intellectual disabilities. Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s vision would evolve into Special Olympics International – a global movement that today serves more than 5.7 million athletes with intellectual disabilities in more than 170 countries, holding sports events worldwide and working to increase the visibility and health of people with intellectual disabilities.
“Eunice [made] sure that Rosemary felt included,” recalled their brother, Ted. “It was really that spirit that started the Special Olympics.”
“Her fervor transformed her family’s unfocused charitable foundation into an engine for scientific research at universities from Stanford to Wisconsin to Johns Hopkins,” according to writer Eileen McNamara. “Her prescience led to the creation of a federal research institute devoted to maternal and child health. Her determination to empty Dickensian institutions for [those with intellectual and developmental disabilities] sparked an unprecedented national commitment to community-based group homes, educational inclusion, and job training that changed the lives of millions who had been warehoused and forgotten.”
McNamara writes, in 1962, “she invited photographers from The Saturday Evening Post to capture images of laughing children in pony carts, on rope swings, in the swimming pool of her backyard; and in 1968, when she recruited professional athletes as their coaches; and in 1972, when she convinced Roone Arledge to televise Special Olympics on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
“When she told me what she wanted, I thought, ‘Nobody is going to watch this, a bunch of crippled kids running around,’” Frank Gifford, the former New York Giants running back and the program’s host, recalled more than 40 years later. “We captured it all on film, and it was one of the most moving things I have ever done. It took away the despair and the fear. They were just kids, having fun. After we put it on television, we picked up crowds all over the country. No one could tell her it wouldn’t work.”
She said, “we believe the quality of caring we give to our parents, to our brothers and sisters, to our families, to our friends and neighbors, and to the poor and the powerless endows a life, a community with respect, hope and happiness.”
Read more: www.specialolympics.org