Eunice Shriver's Endless Gifts

By Colman McCarthy
Saturday, July 8, 2006

"Hello, my name is Eunice."

"Hello, my name is Eunice."

"Hello, my name is Eunice."

Some of the women looked up from their bowls of oatmeal; some didn't. But the self-introductions went on as Eunice Kennedy Shriver worked her way around the table one Sunday morning at a soup kitchen at Fifth and M Streets NW. It was a January day in the late 1970s, the temperature well below freezing. It was only a little less wintry inside: The furnace in the low-rent building had gone out during the night.

The women with whom Shriver was to share a meal were an assortment of the lost and lonely, the broke and broken. But it wasn't long before the Shriver table throbbed with conversation, much of it spirited. For all any of the homeless women knew or cared, their new table mate, appearing from nowhere and just a tad manic about shaking hands with everyone, was one of them.

Of the dozens of times -- perhaps hundreds going back 40 years -- that I've been in the company of Eunice Shriver, I remember that morning the best. She had called a few days before, asking to come along to the Catholic Worker soup kitchen where I was a volunteer dishwasher. Eunice was intellectually curious about homelessness, then surfacing as a public policy issue. She wanted also to gather information to give to her five children when pushing them to answer the call -- her call, the country's call, God's call -- to service.

Today Eunice Shriver will mark her 85th birthday -- at a dinner at home with her family and friends, after a priest celebrates a Mass of thanksgiving in the living room. Reaching 85 is an odds-defying event considering that twice in the past decade Eunice lay in hospitals critically ill and beyond the ministries of doctors. My friendship with her began in the mid-'60s through her husband, Sargent, for whom I worked and for whom the word ebullient was invented.

Reviewing 40 years, I can't think of any other woman whose commitments to works of mercy and rescue have touched more lives in more parts of the world. Her work with Special Olympics -- the athletic program for people with intellectual disabilities that she began in 1968 and that is now in more than 150 countries with 2.25 million athletes and their families, aided by 500,000 volunteers and coaches -- is the world's largest sports program. A poll taken by the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 1994 reported that Special Olympics ranked first as the nation's most credible nonprofit, well ahead of the Girl Scouts, the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross.

What her energetic and good husband was doing with the Peace Corps in the early 1960s -- inspiring people to give of themselves personally -- Eunice Shriver set out to do for people with mental retardation. After persuading her president brother -- John F. Kennedy -- to involve his administration in the cause, she traveled the world to defeat ignorance and indifference about the disability. Among medical specialists, divisions existed: Problem-describers saw retardation as a genetic or prenatal defect; solution-finders pushed for early intervention and education.

With a sociology degree from Stanford University, Eunice Shriver set out to be a social worker. Her Roman Catholicism, nourished by the sacraments and the Beatitudes, eased her out of the life of privilege and plenitude into which she was born. It's only speculation, but I believe that Eunice's public life -- the frenzy of endless traveling, fundraising, organizing and cajoling for both the Special Olympics and her lesser-known but equally valuable program, the Community of Caring -- would have burned out long ago had she lacked a grounded spiritual life.

Her public successes were matched by success at home. Given the current cultural drifts, I think the most revolutionary deed anyone can perform is to raise honest, gentle and loving children. The morally driven mothering that Eunice Shriver gave to each of her children has resulted in five adults whose lives, like hers, are marked with public service and free of self-indulgence.

The writer, a former columnist for The Post, directs the Center for Teaching Peace. He teaches courses on nonviolence at four universities and three high schools in the Washington area.

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