Many Mississippians who never met and did not know Eunice Kennedy Shriver reflected respectfully this week in gratitude for her vision and passion in founding and championing Special Olympics, the now-international sports competition for intellectually disabled people.
Mississippi’s Special Olympics organization was among the charter members who sent coaches and athletes to the first Special Olympics national competition at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1968, and that first small contingent has grown into 13,400 registered athlete participants in our state, all coached and mentored by volunteers who staff the athletic competition.
Shriver, a sister of the late President John F. Kennedy and other famous siblings, was inspired to start Special Olympics because of her own experience with an intellectually challenged sister, Rosemary Kennedy.
The Special Olympics movement arguably more than any other organization raised the visibility and public awareness and acceptance of intellectually disabled people – children and adults who for centuries frequently had been pushed out of the light into dark corners of neglect.
Shriver uncompromisingly demanded full stature and rights for mentally disabled people of all ages, leading to great advances in knowledge and methods for helping them achieve at their highest, most fulfilling levels.
Helen Parish, executive director of Special Olympics in Mississippi, said in several meetings with Shriver she was “always a wonderful lady, full of vitality and fight” for the cause.
Parish said when Shriver visited Mississippi for a Special Olympics event in Magee a steak dinner had been planned in her honor, but when mealtime came she was nowhere to be found.
“She was down by the lake, eating hot-dogs with the clients of Special Olympics because that was where she wanted to be,” Parish said.
“In ancient Rome, the gladiators went into the arena with these words on their lips. ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ . . . Let us begin the Olympics,” Shriver said at Soldier Field in 1968.
Today, 11 regions of Special Olympics within Mississippi, other chapters across the United States and in more than 150 other nations operate under the umbrella of Special Olympics.
“You are the stars and the world is watching you,” Shriver said in kicking off the 1987 games in Indianapolis. “By your presence, you send a message to every village, every city, every nation. A message of hope. A message of victory.”
The victory she sought and won was dignity and full standing for the intellectually disabled as members of the human family.
NEMS Daily Journal