“Enough” said Eunice Kennedy Shriver, when, in 1960 two local Bethesda, MD women called Eunice and told her that they were having trouble finding summer camps for their children with intellectual disabilities, because the “mainstream,” “normal” camps would not accept their children.
At the time, Eunice – one of nine children of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, Sr, and younger sister of President John F. Kennedy – was the head of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, a foundation committed to improving the means by which society viewed and interacted with mentally handicapped individuals.
Building on the information that Eunice learned in those phone calls, in 1962, she opened Camp Shriver, with the goal of providing an environment for children with intellectual disabilities a place to be involved, play and participate in physical activities. In its first year, 34 special needs children from the local community and 26 counselors comprised Camp Shriver, with the children doing things like swimming, shooting hoops, playing other sports and, just as important, interacting with people from the community, which was an important aspect of the camp.
Operating from 1962 – 1966, Camp Shriver allowed special needs children new opportunities and learning experiences connected with the local community.
As a result of Camp Shriver, in the 1960s, federal legislators and their spouses vowed to try and get similar camps and recreation programs started in their states, which prior to Camp Shriver was virtually non-existent in this country.
Meanwhile, during the same period of time that Eunice Kennedy Shriver was operating Camp Shriver, a Canadian physical education professor named Dr. Frank Hayden was exploring the overall benefit of physical exercise in persons with intellectual disabilities. Seeking to further the cause of the ability for persons with mental handicaps to participate in mainstream community sports programs – but not finding much support in Canada – in the late 1960s, Dr. Hayden turned to Eunice and the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.
With financial assistance from the Kennedy family and Eunice’s leadership of the Kennedy Foundation and other supporters, the first international Special Olympics Summer Games was held in 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago. Envisioned as a one-time Olympic-style competition for people with mental handicaps and special needs, the one-day event brought together approximately 1,000 such athletes from the U.S. and Canada.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver gave the inaugural charge to the athletes, and also gave the Opening Ceremonies address. The 1968 Games included track and field, swimming and diving, and few other sports. If you were to punch in search terms “1968 Special Olympics games youtube,” for example, you could see video footage of those games.
And it was during this seminal, groundbreaking event that Eunice Kennedy Shriver announced the formation of the Special Olympics, and she is universally credited as the Founder of the Special Olympics.
With the mission to “provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community,” what began as a one-time event with 1,000 athletes from two countries has grown to more than 4.5 million athletes in 170 countries, comprising of 32 Olympic-type sports and more than 94,000 games and competitions throughout the year.
And so what began as a small camp for children with mental handicaps and special needs in the summer in one small community – Camp Shriver began with 34 children and grew to 100 –has grown into a powerful and impactful world-wide movement.
Numerous events over the last 50 years have contributed to the global growth. For example, winter sports were added in 1977. In the 1980s, the United Nations became involved, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially recognized the Special Olympics. In 1993, the first Special Olympics Winter Games were held outside the United States, and in 2003, the first summer games were held outside the United States. Influential world leaders made awareness of the Special Olympics in their countries a priority. And in July 2011, the Special Olympics World Summer Games was held in Athens, Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics.
The Special Olympics has influenced policies in many countries around the world that have resulted in better health, education and employment opportunities for individuals with special needs; and is the world’s largest public health organization for people with intellectual disabilities.
And if you were to tune in last night to ESPN, you would have seen the closing ceremonies of the 2015 World Games live from Los Angeles, California, and you would have been able to bear witness to the enduring legacy of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. A woman who none other than Nelson Mandela has called a “pioneer” and a person who “literally changed the way persons with intellectual disabilities are treated and viewed.”
When we hear the last name Kennedy, many if not most of us immediately think of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy; and rightfully so. But we should, and hopefully we will, add Eunice Kennedy Shriver to this last as well. Because her recognition that people have a right to be included and given opportunities can be a lesson to all of us as we go through life and interact with our fellow human beings. And all throughout her life, she continued to personify that message through the Special Olympics.