Thirty-five years ago, a friend of mine gave birth to a girl with Down Syndrome and immediately put her in an institution. Everyone sympathized. My friend did the right thing, we all believed, not exposing her family to the shame of a damaged child. It was the proper way to deal with the situation.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died Tuesday at age 88, changed all of our minds about that. Through her loving and tireless efforts on behalf of mentally disabled — inspired by her sister’s Rosemary’s experiences with mental disabilities — Eunice changed the world by changing our understanding of mental retardation.
Because of Rosemary, Eunice saw how people with mental disabilities were shunned, mocked and often discarded by society. Eunice spent most of her adult life tenaciously working to bring those people out of the shadows of society and into the mainstream, to be loved and cared for and valued in ways that would allow them to lead productive and useful lives.
The Post’s obituary recounts the various ways in which Eunice did that, most notably by organizing the Special Olympics in 1968. But I know Eunice’s impact on the world first-hand. My son Quinn Bradlee was born with severe learning disabilities as well as many medical problems. We were told that he would have to be institutionalized, that he would never go to high school or college, never have a job or a relationship, never have a life.
Today, at age 27, Quinn is the author of a book about being learning disabled, “A Different Life”, he has his own Web site for those with learning disabilities called friendsofquinn.com, and he is in a relationship with a wonderful young woman. Without Eunice this probably would not have happened. Eunice’s work gave Quinn (and me) the courage to be open and honest about his problems, and he has been able to help and inspire many people because of it. Eunice’s son, Tim Shriver, now chairman of the Special Olympics, has also been a huge support for Quinn.
Eunice Shriver was a Kennedy, but there was never a moment when she lorded over anyone. She used her power and celebrity to improve the lives of others. She inspired Tim and her other four children to continue to do public service in some way. Maria is tireless is her support for the disadvantaged, especially women. Bobby is a lawyer who co-founded an anti-poverty group, DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa), with U2 lead singer Bono. Mark is a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, is an official with Save the Children. Anthony Shriver is founder of Best Buddies International, a program that encourages students to work with mentally disabled children.
Eunice and her husband Sargent Shriver (who was founding director of the Peace Corps) were dedicated and tireless in the work they did and the love they had for their country. If anyone were looking for role models in their lives, these two are it.
Those of us who knew Eunice know she was classy and decent, kind and loving, energetic and brave. Her Kennedy sense of humor got her through so many hard times, but her guiding strength was her faith. Eunice was a devout Catholic. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI bestowed upon her the title of Dame of the Papal Order of St. Gregory the great.
It was really her belief in God and the Church which led her to devote her life to others.
“It’s hard for us to believe the amazing Eunice Kennedy Shriver went home to God this morning at 2 a.m.” her family said in a statement to the press. “She was the light of our lives – a mother, wife, grandmother, sister and aunt – and taught us by example, and with passion, what it means to live a faith-driven life of love and service to others.”
Amen. And thank you, Eunice.