What began as one woman’s vision has evolved into the Special Olympics, a non-profit charitable organization which has grown to 3 million athletes in more than 180 countries around the world.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver put that vision into action in 1962 by inviting youngsters with disabilities to a summer day camp she hosted in her backyard.
She called it ‘Camp Shriver’
Eunice’s special relationship with her sister Rosemary who had intellectual disability inspired her lifelong work to create a more accepting and inclusive world for people with special needs.
‘If Rosemary hadn’t been my sister, I’d never had known anything about special needs children. My sister Rosemary spent her childhood in the Kennedy family home unlike many other developmentally challenged children who grew up in institutions and their families told friends they had died!’
In 1982, Shriver founded The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Center for Community of Caring at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. The Community is a grades K-12, whole school comprehensive character education program with focus on disabilities. It has been adopted by almost 1,200 schools in the United States and Canada.
Summit School and Christopher
Summit School in Montreal, Quebec offers programs for children with a variety of emotional, behavioral and intellectual disabilities. I have been a volunteer at Summit for eight years working with a Polaroid camera and using photo images to encourage informal, non-threatening dialogue with the kids.
Wednesday: Sitting across from me at a little people’s table is my buddy 7-year old Christopher. He is an acting-out boy with red hair and heavenly soft blue eyes. Christopher has 3 sisters. He tells me that his 8-year old sister Cassie, who is also at Summit School, put Ajax in his baby sister Cerise’s eyes while she was napping.
Christopher is proud of the fact that he now has 13 Polaroid photos in his drawer at home. I promise him a photo album next week so he can bring them all to school.
‘We’ll put your pictures in the album together,’ I tell him.
He tells me that his mother won’t allow him to. I suggest that he tell his mother that the teacher said he should for his school project.
‘She doesn’t care what my teachers say,’ he tells me. ‘I’ll just sneak them out of the house.’
He chooses a photo from the pile off the table and he says, ‘See me running away from home with my photo album. Can I take a Polaroid picture of you for my collection?’
He chooses a photo of a woman who looks serious and unhappy and he tells me to hold the picture next to my face so he can snap us together.
‘The woman is not very nice is she?’ It’s not really a question. Her face is telling him she is not nice. I ask him why he thinks that about her and he says she looks mean and like she is making fun of someone.
‘Does someone make fun of you?’ I ask.
He looks off in space and he says, ‘Yes, my sister Cassie calls me Christopher-Poo. Can we talk about more pictures,’ he asks. ‘I like looking at them.’
Christopher picks a photograph of 3 youngsters and he tells me they are friends and they have Ajax all over them.
‘They don’t look so happy,’ he says. ‘Especially the girl.’
‘How do you know it’s a girl?”
‘I can tell because she doesn’t look like the other two friends.’
‘Why do you think these kids don’t have clothes on?’ I ask him.
‘Because it’s summer! Do you see the flowers on their heads? Do you see snow anywhere?’
‘I love you, Christopher. That is very good looking at details in the pictures. You are smart and I cannot wait to see you again soon.’
He tells me not to forget his photo album. And then he asks me if he can take a photograph that has caught his eye on the table.
‘This is a Special Olympics picture. I am so happy you said I can have it,’ he said grinning from ear-to-ear.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver passed away August, 2011. She was 88 years old.
Upon her death, a member of the Shriver family issued this statement:
‘Inspired by her love of God, her devotion to her family, and her relentless belief in the dignity and worth of every human life, she worked without ceasing….searching, pushing, demanding, hoping for change. She was a living prayer, a family advocate, a living center of power. She set out to change the world and to change us, and she did that and more. She founded the movement that became Special Olympics, the largest movement for acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities in the history of the world. Her work transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and they in turn are her living legacy.’