A Very Special Christmas

The idea, in retrospect, seems so elemental to the Special Olympics movement that it's a wonder it didn't begin 40 years ago, not 20: Tie the growing global Special Olympics movement to the international language of music and create music that gives back to those most in need.

Through bold innovation and enormous generosity, the record industry has made beautiful music for Special Olympics athletes since 1987. "A Very Special Christmas," (AVSC) now represents by far the largest financial source in the history of Special Olympics, having generated over $100 million. Beyond that, the series of albums, featuring some of the biggest-name artists in the world, is the single most successful benefit recording in musical history.

The idea came from record producer Jimmy Iovine, who had begun his musical career as an engineer for artists such as John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. He went on to produce, among others, Stevie Nicks, Dire Straits and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. In the mid-80s Iovine wanted to do a benefit Christmas album as a memorial to his father. His wife, Vicki Iovine, a model and writer, suggested that Special Olympics be the beneficiary. Vicki was a volunteer in the Santa Monica office of Special Olympics and a friend of Bobby Shriver, the oldest of Eunice's five children.

Things proceeded fast from there. Bobby organized a party, Jimmy and Vicki met Sargent Shriver, who then held the title of president of Special Olympics, and Jimmy told Shriver his idea. "Let's do it," said Sargent. "I agree," said Eunice.

Some fund-raisers are fun but don't make any money. Some make money but aren't any fun. And some aren't any fun and don't make any money. Precious few are like "A Very Special Christmas." Did the Kennedy connections and the Iovine rep attract any talent? Well, the first AVSC album included Springsteen rocking out "Merry Christmas Baby" and Madonna doing "Santa Baby." Both remain classics of the Christmas genre. U2, Run DMC and Herb Alpert were among the others who recorded. Basically, SO went 15-for-15: Every artist it contacted said yes. Studios donated free time. Residual concessions ensued. For a bargain-basement price of about $100,000-U2 makes that much while they're tuning up-co-producers Bobby, Vicki and Paul Marshall (with Jimmy looking on obviously)-put out an album that everyone wanted to be on, and everyone wanted to buy.

By March of 1988, five months after the releases of the first "A Very Special Christmas," Special Olympics had received an initial royalty check for $5 million. Even to an organization accustomed to success, that was astounding.

And the hits kept coming. Most musicians have the desire to do a Christmas album, but can't find the right fit-AVSC was it. Great cause, great anticipation from the public, other great musicians in the mix.

And so it continued. Bonnie Raitt, Cyndi Lauper, Steve Nicks, Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall-they all joined on.

The series became a way to boost international music, just as Special Olympics competitions were a way to boost international sports. And so did the '96 AVSC feature artists such as Cesaria Evora, Gilberto Gil, the Gipsy Kings and Caetano Veloso. One of the highlights in a series of highlights was the 1999 record, "A Very Special Christmas 4: Live from Washington, D.C.," that included and evening hosted by President and Mrs. Bill Clinton and performances by Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman, Vanessa Williams and Jon Bon Jovi.

Changing Lives through Music

Eunice felt strongly, as did the Iovines, that the funds raised through AVSC go directly to the growth of Special Olympics programs most in need. Disbursed in grants by the Special Olympics Christmas Records Trust, the monies raised each year by the albums/CDs play a crucial role in the lives of the least-advantaged Special Olympics athletes around the world where there are inaccurate and prejudiced views about people with intellectual disabilities.

Grants from the Christmas Trust have enabled Special Olympics to implement programs in such countries as Russia, China and Uganda, and as seed funding to build new Programs in places like Timor Leste, Cambodia, Laos and Lesotho. Of 89 Special Olympics Programs that receive Christmas Record grants, 25 percent are classified by the United Nations as operating in Least Developed Countries. In these countries, the need for outreach is critical, as many are unable to provide support for their citizens with intellectual disabilities.

"A Very Special Christmas" has given Special Olympics the power to forever change lives. The series makes possible another kind of music: the rousing cheers of proud parents and friends, where once there was only the stifling silence of ignorance and fear.