Global Leaders - Advocating around the World

Eunice's ability to solicit the assistance of world leaders--to be respectful yet not cowed, to be mindful of procedure yet relentless was a major reason for the global expansion of Special Olympics.

After John F. Kennedy became president, he used to joke that the only member of the family he feared seeing was Eunice. "She always had an agenda," he said. Yes, he was the leader of the free world and Eunice loved him as an older brother, but Eunice also saw President Kennedy as a potential asset to the movement, which wasn't yet called Special Olympics when he was in charge of the country.

Eunice knew, that to a large extent, presidents, premiers and popes set the agenda for their followers. If you get to the head, you get to the heart.

Rooted in the United States

During her brother's too-short presidency, legislation was passed to encourage universities to research intellectual disability and to develop assistance for parents at community centers. But her brother's door wasn't the only Presidential door Eunice has knocked on over the years. She made entreaties with Presidents Johnson, Carter, Ford, Reagan, Bush (I and II) and Clinton, all of whom were significant Special Olympics boosters.

Perhaps awareness of intellectual disabilities in the United States would've evolved naturally (albeit considerably slower) without Eunice. But it was her ability to connect with global leaders that really made a difference to the movement. Special Olympics would not be the movement it is today if Eunice wasn't able to enlist people of power and influence to see the power of her message.

Reaching Around the Globe

She knew that any great political leader has a vision for his/her country and her message of full participation in the life of their country for every person whether young or old, male or female, disabled or non-disabled would be welcomed. Eunice followed this simple premise and took the message of acceptance to heads of state, first ladies, and royalty. More than 50 such visits occurred during a span of 40 years. The results can be seen not only in the growth of the Special Olympics movement around the world, but also in changes of rights and laws, inclusive education, health services, and research for people with intellectual disabilities.

Eunice became friends with Nelson Mandela when he was president of South Africa. She attended First Ladies' Summit in Latin America and invited the First Lady of Panama, Vivian Fernandez de Torrijos, to tour the Special Olympics offices in Washington and later join the international board of Special Olympics. She reached out to the Soviet Union and had great success pumping up the program through her connections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In South America, she got through to President Carlos Menem of Argentina and, in Chile, she counted former President Eduardo Frei as an ally. Austria, Egypt, Iceland, Israel, Ireland, Jordan, and the United Kingdom have been other major successes within the Special Olympics movement partly because of Eunice's relationships with leaders in those countries.

The Special Olympics movement took a major global turn when Eunice, along with her husband Sarge, made entreaties with leaders in Japan (His Imperial Highness Crown Price Naruhito and Prime Minister Koizumi) and China (Presidents Jiang Xemin and Hu Jintao). Today, Special Olympics serves over 700,000 athletes and their families in China making it the largest program in the world. One of the most important relationships she cultivated was with the United Nations, specifically with Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Yes, over the years, President Kennedy wasn't the only world leader who had to grit his teeth and get ready when Eunice came calling. But he, like most of the others, had a hard time saying no.