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‘You Are the Stars’

‘You Are the Stars’

When I heard the news of Sargent Shriver’s death on January 18, just two days before the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, I was struck by the impact a single individual can have on many people — and how actions, more than words, define a life. Shriver married into the Kennedy family, known for its legacy of public service, and did not disappoint with his own record of helping the underprivileged. It was he who was charged with the daunting task of designing the foundation for the Peace Corps for JFK, his brother-in-law. Fifty years later, it remains a model, copied countless times.

With the news of his death, I couldn’t help but think about Sargent Shriver’s wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died in August 2009. I wrote about her legacy in a column for The Southampton Press shortly after her death, noting that it is her founding of the Special Olympics some 40 years ago that makes her a hero in my heart:

“It’s not just her legacy in the form of a wonderful organization that makes it so, it is the compassion behind it, and how it was the start of a cultural shift in this county regarding how we, as a nation, viewed individuals with intellectual disabilities. News of her death came to me by way of a mass e-mail sent by her son, Anthony Kennedy Shriver, founder of Best Buddies, another organization devoted to individuals with developmental disabilities.

“When I clicked on the link to a site honoring his mother, the first thing I heard was the deep voice of Mrs. Shriver, clearly a Kennedy, and the words she spoke at the 1987 Special Olympics World Games, sending chills down my spine for the hope it inspired then and now: ‘You are the stars, and the world is watching you. By your presence, you send a message to every village, every city, every nation. A message of hope. A message of victory.’ Indeed, it is she who gave so many hope and a chance at victory, a chance to be valued.

“Mrs. Shriver openly talked about people with intellectual disabilities and was not afraid to be around them. She was widely photographed shoulder-to-shoulder with children, teenagers and adults with obvious disabilities. There is something about a woman born into wealth and privilege who takes her mission so seriously, not simply by urging others to take it on, but by example. By being willing to swim, run, play, and even hug a child with a disability. It gave her message more weight.

“What’s impossible for me to imagine is that our nation was once one in which my son would not have been given a chance. These sweet children who make me laugh and smile, and sometimes cry, were considered misfits not worthy of public education dollars. But, now, thanks in large part to Mrs. Shriver, our country — if not the whole world — recognizes that individuals with intellectual disabilities should be valued. This special group of people teaches us about ourselves. And thanks to Mrs. Shriver, my son has two Special Olympics gold medals hanging in his room.”

Sadly, though the world has come a long way in its treatment of people with disabilities, there are still those who fail to respect and appreciate them as individuals. We hope that Awe in Autism, in showcasing creativity inspired by those on the spectrum, will help to change that. Deborah and I believe that every individual has great value, and that each child with autism is a shining star.