The Special Olympics is an organization dedicated to empowering children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities, with over five million athletes in over 174 countries.
There weren’t always opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in sports. Prior to this organization’s founding, a disability often meant being ostracized and excluded from physical activities.
That began to change with the impact of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her passionate care for the disability communities she served. This is the story of how her small camp with 34 attendees grew to be the largest organization of its kind in the world.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, younger sister to President John F. Kennedy, was born in 1921 in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Eunice grew up having a close relationship with her sister, Rosemary, who struggled with disability. Eunice saw how Rosemary was excluded from parts of life that were available to others and decided to dedicate her life to helping people like her sister.
Having studied Sociology at Stanford, Eunice was a social worker before becoming executive vice president of her family’s Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. This is when she started to become interested in focusing the foundation’s philanthropy on research and aid for people with disabilities.
In 1958, she and her husband, Sargent Shriver, Eunice began a series of fact-finding trips to learn about the newest and most important innovations in care for people with disabilities. By 1962 she was one of the founders of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is now named in her honor.
The idea for a summer camp for people with disabilities was conceived in 1960 when Eunice received a call from a woman who was having trouble finding a summer camp for her child with a disability. Mainstream camps didn’t know how to take care of kids with disabilities, and the public education system didn’t have any better resources either. When Eunice began hearing similar reports from other parents, she knew it was time to get to work.
So, in 1962, Eunice organized Camp Shriver at her own farm, Timberlawn, in Maryland. She recruited high-school and college students to act as counselors and invited children with disabilities to come participate in activities such as swimming, basketball, soccer, and horse riding.
That first year there were 34 children and 26 counselors. The camp was a massive success. The ratio of attendees to staff meant that every child could receive near-constant attention, helping them grow in confidence and joy, and just have fun. After such great success, Eunice decided to continue running the camp, with more and more attendees, and more and more counselors each year.
Six years after the founding of Camp Shriver, Eunice was given an opportunity to expand the program from her family farm to a much larger population.
Enter disability advocate Anne McGlone Burke.
Burke was a Chicago PE teacher working with the Chicago Park District. She too had a passion for working with students with disabilities and wanted to develop programs that allowed them to exercise and get outside. Her idea was simple but ambitious: a one-day, Olympic-style track meet in Chicago for people with disabilities. But she needed help to execute on a citywide scale, so she reached out to Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
Who was better suited to help than the founder of Camp Shriver, and an executive at the Kennedy foundation? Indeed, Eunice was just the woman to ask. And she had an even more ambitious idea: what if this project included more cities than just Chicago, more sports than just track, and most importantly, more than just one day?
With a $25,000 grant from the Kennedy foundation, the two women began organizing, and by summer they were prepared to change the future for people with disabilities around the world.
Introduced as the Biennial International Special Olympics, the games were first held on July 20, 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago. About 1,000 Athletes from the United States and Canada came to participate in over 200 events.
A three-and-a-half-foot-deep swimming pool was constructed in the outfield for swimmers, and between events, professional athletes ran skill clinics to help the competitors.
Mayor of Chicago Richard Daley is reported to have told Mrs. Shriver during the games that the world would never be the same after that day, and indeed he was right. By August 2nd, the Special Olympics organization was officially founded.
In the years to come, the organization would grow. By 1972, 2,500 athletes from all 50 states and three international programs would participate. In 1977, the Special Olympics hosted their first winter games in Colorado.
In 1993 the games were hosted in Austria, the first time they had been held outside the U.S. The Special Olympics in Ireland was the largest sporting event in the world for the year of 2003, and as of 2016, over 5.3 million athletes and partners are associated with the organization.
Overcoming Disability with the LifeGlider
Taken from Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s speech at the opening of the first Special Olympic Games, the athletes have an oath that says, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Words like these remind us of customers like 10-year-old Bre, whose bravery and perseverance have brought her a long way towards walking independently.
With the help of the LifeGlider, Bre went from being a full-time wheelchair user to competing in multiple run/walk events at her local Special Olympics in June 2021! We’re thrilled this device could help make Bre’s athletic goals a reality.
If you are looking to take the next step towards mobility, but you’re not sure where to start, contact us today. We look forward to exploring your goals and helping you achieve them with a LifeGlider of your own!