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Families of children with mental retardation also face challenges. And for the last half century, they found a champion in Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She's the younger sister of President John F. Kennedy. She grew up in a family that valued competition and sports.

Ms. EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER (Executive Vice President, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation; Honorary chairperson, Special Olympics): I was always trying to find my brothers, not my sisters, but my brothers, because I knew they wanted to do football and I wanted to play football, and I was very good. I was always the quarterback.

MONTAGNE: Eunice Kennedy Shriver went on to start the Special Olympics, so people with mental retardation could enjoy competition and sports too. She's 85 now and she's still advocating for people with retardation every day.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro has the story.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Eunice Kennedy Shriver walks gingerly down the marble halls of a Capitol office building, holding onto the arm offered by her son, Tim. She's a pencil-thin woman, in a camel hair coat with a fur collar.

(Soundbite of people talking)

SHAPIRO: She walks into an office to meet Senator Tom Harkin.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): I'm Great. So are you, you're always great.

Ms. SHRIVER: Two minutes, hurry up. Can I sit down?

SHAPIRO: She quickly takes off her watch and puts it on the table, to keep the meeting short. It's a friendly warning too for her son, Tim; he runs Special Olympics now.

Mr. TIM SHRIVER: She's already telling me we have to end the meeting.

Ms. SHRIVER: Five minutes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHRIVER: We haven't even started yet.

Sen. HARKIN: You're on a stopwatch.

Mr. SHRIVER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: The Shrivers and their delegation are on Capitol Hill today to seek several million dollars to expand health care and other programs run by Special Olympics.

Ms. SHRIVER: I hate taking time.

Sen. HARKIN: OK.

Ms. SHRIVER: Moments are gold.

SHAPIRO: She did more lobbying that same week. She went to a congressional hearing and a gathering of governors. She met with the secretary of education, and then with college presidents to ask for education programs after high school.

No family has done more than the Kennedys to change negative attitudes about mental retardation. President John Kennedy set up research centers. Robert Kennedy inspected squalid state institutions. Senator Ted Kennedy helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act. But it was Eunice Kennedy Shriver who was always on the phone nagging her more famous brothers to take action.

Ms. SHRIVER: I had enormous affection from Rose and Iā€¦

SHAPIRO: She was close to her big sister Rosemary who had mild mental retardation. They'd play tennis and go bowling.

Ms. SHRIVER: I've got more time with Rosemary, because I was really growing up indignant. In fact, I even think about it now, and I'm cross again. So it'd put me in a bad humor right now. More seriously, yes, definitely had mental (unintelligible). If I never met Rosemary then I'll never know anything about handicapped children. How would I ever found out, because nobody accepted them any place? So where would you find out? Unless you have one in your own family.

SHAPIRO: When President Kennedy in 1962 spoke openly of his family's own experience. It was a big deal.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Can you imagine that two percent of our children live in mental retardation, who could be saved?

SHAPIRO: Because back then, to have a family member with retardation was still a source of secrecy and shame.

Pres. KENNEDY: And those of us who have seen children live in the shadow, know that a country as rich as ours could possibly justify this neglect.

(Soundbite of applause)

SHAPIRO: Rosemary's disability worsened after she had a lobotomy, an operation that was meant to help her. She spent most of her life at a private institution in Wisconsin and died two years ago.

Eunice Shriver visited regularly and made mental retardation a constant cause.

Mr. EDWARD SHORTER (Author, "The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation"): It was extraordinary of her to conceive that she, too, could play a role comparable to that of her brothers.

SHAPIRO: History professor Edward Shorter is author of, "The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation."

Mr. SHORTER: But her leadership role would be in the area of MR rather than on the big political stage, because in the 1950s, she couldn't go there. Women weren't tolerated there.

SHAPIRO: Shriver saw that opportunities were limited for people with mental retardation, just like political ones were limited for her. Shorter says she rejected the role of society woman and took over the family foundation.

Mr. SHORTER: So she had the genius to see that she, in fact, was capable of major achievements in helping these kids, and that's what she did. She dedicated her life to it.

SHAPIRO: And opened her home. In 1962, an exhausted mother got Shriver on the phone. The woman wanted to know what to do because no summer camp would accept her child with mental retardation. So Shriver told the woman, she'd start her own camp and there would be no charge.

Ms. SHRIVER: I said, you don't have to talk about it anymore. You come here a month from today. I'll start my own camp. No charge would go into the camp, but you have to get your kid here, and you have to come and pick your kid up. Thank you very much, and I hung up the phone.

SHAPIRO: For years, Eunice Shriver ran that summer camp at Timberlawn, the family estate in Maryland. She'd get in the pool and teach kids to swim. There were scores of noisy campers, counselors, horses, soccer games, obstacle courses.

Lyndon Johnson came once. Robert McNamara, too. Tim Shriver says that camp -for all its chaos - is a big reason why he and his siblings ā€” Robert, Mark and Anthony and Maria Shriver ā€” stay involved in the issue.

Mr. SHRIVER: The great - the gift that we had as kids was never to be introduced to disability or intellectual disability as a cause, but more as an activity. Never as a burden, but rather as a joy. I mean, we - our introduction to people with special needs was to swim or play kickball or go horseback riding. So part of her genius has always been to create things that people want to join, that make things fun.

SHAPIRO: That summer camp led Eunice Shriver and her husband, Sargent, to start the Special Olympics in 1968. Shriver hasn't always been on the cutting edge of issues. Other advocates and her sons pushed to make Special Olympics more than a once a year sporting event. It's now a place where participants get linked to health care and community programs. Shriver listened and pushed for more, too.

Mr. SHRIVER: Why do you keep working so tirelessly on this issue?

Ms. SHRIVER: This is so outrageous in so many countries. They're not accepted in the schools. They're not accepted in program, pay(ph) program. They're just not accepted. So we have much to do.

SHAPIRO: Every year, Shriver brings a parent of a disabled child and someone who works in disabilities to Washington for a year to work on Capitol Hill. They have gone back to their states, where they become a new generation of leaders.

Last month, more than three-dozen of these former Kennedy fellows gathered in the ballroom of a Washington hotel to hold their first-ever reunion. Shriver stepped carefully to the podium.

Ms. SHRIVER: So we've got to be so proud of what our special friends do and their future.

SHAPIRO: There was the sense in the room that this might be a last chance to honor Shriver. She's been hospitalized a few times, two years ago after a small stroke. But Eunice Kennedy Shriver made it clear that at age 85, she is going to keep on being an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities.

Ms. SHRIVER: And we want to keep going all the time, the next 20 years. I'm going. You come with me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: See some of the special competitors and family photos documenting Eunice Shriver's work at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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