She changed my life even before I had the privilege to me her. I am writing about Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, Inc., and my hero.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver changed the world. One person, one concept. She dared to question medical and educational professionals when she decided that persons with intellectual disabilities could be coached and trained as competitive athletes. From her home she ran Camp Shriver and along with other family members and volunteers taught children and adults with mental retardation, who were shunned from community programs, to swim, to run and to compete. In 1968, in Chicago, at the fist Special Olympic Games, the world was forever changed as 1,000 athletes from around the company competed and a movement was born.
I was 16 years old and I took notice.
And so, eleven years later, in the early hours of a day on which I can't remember the weather or what was going on in the world, my first child was born. I only remember the hurt and disappointment of being told that my son had Down syndrome and four life threatening heart defects. My dreams for my new baby were dashed. The next day, when I first saw my son, he was hooked up to more life support machines and wires that I had ever seen and when I reached into his isolate, I stroked his leg and bent down and whispered, "You may never be in the Olympics, but maybe you will be in the Special Olympics."
One person. One concept. It changed my life and Jonathan's life.
By my count Eunice Kennedy Shriver has changed over 3 million lives of Special Olympic athletes in 164 countries, 7 million family members of athletes, and millions and millions of lives of the coaches, officials and volunteers of Special Olympics. All because one woman used her intellect, energy, family connections and grit to see the opportunities for what she has often called "our special friends".
Because of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Special Olympics and the belief that she holds for athletes with intellectual disabilities, my son is an accomplished athlete and Special Olympian. Because she challenged the world's attitudes about mental retardation, Jonathan was allowed to challenge his world about his abilities. In addition to his accomplishments as a Special Olympian which includes being third in the world in 18 hole golf competition-an honor won after playing 5 consecutive 18 hole rounds of golf on the notoriously difficult Yale golf course and following PGA rules which mandated he walk each round.
Jon lettered on his high school golf team and in addition, he has competed in swimming, track and field, bowling, baseball, soccer and basketball. He has skied, biked, snorkeled, kayaked, hiked and fished.
He graduated high school, went to a community college and became a home owner. He works, has friends, maintains a home and in his words, "loves my life".
He owes this to a woman with the courage and tenacity to who knew this to be possible.
My story about this remarkable woman does not end with Jonathan.
In 1989, I was invited to become a member of the Board of Directors of Special Olympics, Inc. My first meeting was preceded by dinner at the Shriver home. There I was awed by the memorabilia of members of her family who have shaped our country's history. It reminded me of Jack's presidency and Bobby's almost and of her devoted husband, R. Sergeant Shriver own accomplishments.
You can be forgiven if you know Sarge, as he is affectionately know, as the man beside the woman because I think it is a role he has always cherished. Whenever I think of what love means, I remember listening to Mrs. Shriver giving a speech and looking over to Sarge, who was sitting nearby. After decades of marriage and 5 wonderful children and several grandchildren, he sat in what I could only call rapture and awe as he listened to his wife. And when she was finished, he stood up and turned to the crowd and asked, "Isn't she marvelous?" The smile that covered his face and the pride and delight in his eyes made me realize I was in the presence of something so unusual that few of us will ever experience it-real and enduring love and devotion.
Mr. Shriver has stood by Mrs. Shriver and supported her in everything she did and he shared her passion, but this article would not be complete without the readers knowing that he founded Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, Community Action, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, the National Center on Poverty Law, Legal Services, Indian and Migrant Opportunities and he directed the Peace Corps. Shriver also ran the War on Poverty and served as Ambassador to France.
Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Shriver for the light you provided in what I mistakenly thought was darkness And I wouldn't change anything about that day almost 30 years ago when I was put on a path to be part of the change that Eunice Kennedy Shriver started. I take that back, I would change the hurt and disappointment I felt and replace it with love, happiness and joy. Those are the gifts I receive everyday from Jonathan and I can't imagine my world without him.
Jo Ann Simons
St. Coletta & Cardinal Cushing Schools of Massachusetts Cardinal Cushing Centers
Jo Ann Simons is the President and CEO of St. Coletta & Cardinal Cushing Schools of Massachusetts. For over fifty years, under the sponsorship of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, Cardinal Cushing Centers have provided caring, innovative approaches to education for thousands of children with special needs, regardless of race, national origin or religion. Learn more about St. Coletta & Cardinal Cushing Schools of Massachusetts