Special Olympics Founder Eunice Shriver Dies

August 11, 2009       Michele Donohue      

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics and life-long advocate for those with intellectual disabilities, has died. She was 88.

Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics Games, which were first held July 20, 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago where approximately 1,000 athletes with mental disabilities from 26 states and Canada competed.

“Every day, our Special Olympics family continues to work tirelessly around the world to bring her powerful vision to life to change the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, using sports as the catalyst for respect, acceptance and inclusion,” Brady Lum, Special Olympics president and chief operating officer, said via a statement.

The Special Olympics has grown to more than 3.1 million athletes competing in 30 Olympic summer and winter sports with 227 programs in 175 countries. More than 750,000 volunteers and more than 300,000 coaches help with the nearly 3,000 individual international competitions. Special Olympics ranked 60th in the 2008 The NonProfit Times Top 100, a study of the nation’s largest charities, with more than $247 million in total revenue.

“My mother has always been about hope, love and opportunity. Love being the most important. For what do we have, if we do not have love? Hope for helping us through each day when life challenges us. And, opportunity that each one of us is empowered to create to make the world a better place,” said Timothy Shriver, chairman, Special Olympics

“My mother believed in these things so strongly and they have played a major role in her life, especially, her work with people with intellectual disabilities. To this day, the mission of Special Olympics is routed in the values of hope, love and opportunity. To create an opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities where they can compete, experience success and showcase their talents to the world. To create a community of hope and welcome for the athletes and their families where they can experience joy and acceptance. And, to let others share in the love and joy that comes from the athletes so openly and unencumbered. That is the essence of my mother’s vision," Shriver said via a prepared statement.

Kennedy Shriver was the fifth of nine children of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and sister to Former President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy Shriver was inspired in part by her older sister, Rosemary, born in 1918, who was diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. Rosemary had a lobotomy performed on her when she was 23 and institutionalized in Wisconsin until her death in January 2005.

Kennedy Shriver wrote, in The Saturday Evening Post on September 22, 1962, that, “To transform promise to reality, the mentally retarded must have champions of their cause, the more so because they are unable to provide their own.”

Kennedy Shriver was honorary chairperson of Special Olympics and executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, which was established in 1946 in memory of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the family’s oldest son who was killed in World War II. The foundation’s major objectives are to improve the way society deals with citizens who have intellectual disabilities and to identify and prevent the causes of those disabilities.

Kennedy Shriver was recognized with honors such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Ronald Reagan, the National Collegiate Athletics Association Theodore Roosevelt Award and the International Olympic Committee Award during her lifetime.

A spokesperson for Special Olympics said the organization and Kennedy Shriver’s family saw an enormous outpouring of well wishes from around the world during her hospitalization.