The predecessor of the Special Olympics was Camp Shriver, an outdoor camp for mentally disabled children who had no access to summer recreation programs. The camp, launched at Eunice Kennedy Shriver's Maryland farm in 1962, evolved into an organization that serves more than 1 million athletes in 160 countries.
Shriver, who died Tuesday at age 88, took a hands-on role in the organization she founded well into her latter years. Actress Susan Saint James, a Special Olympics volunteer for 37 years, described Shriver in a New York Times article as a "full-service volunteer." She would make sandwiches and hand out medals at the biennial games. "She did very few things in a ball gown," Saint James said.
Shriver, sister to President John F. Kennedy, carried on the family tradition of public service as a tireless advocate for people with mental disabilities. Her labors were inspired by her experiences with her developmentally disabled sister Rosemary Kennedy, who lived most of her life in an institution in Wisconsin.
Although Special Olympics is a private organization, some credit it for changing attitudes about the inclusion of people with disabilities, as well as about social and education policy.
Shriver, who earned a sociology degree from Stanford University in 1943, worked as a social worker at a women's prison in West Virginia and in the juvenile-court system in Chicago in the 1950s. Author Nicholas Lemann, in his 1991 book "The Promised Land: The Black Migration and How It Changed America," wrote that the Kennedy administration's juvenile-delinquency commission, "a pet project that had been created to placate Eunice," helped to spur vast federal efforts to improve conditions for urban blacks.
She later took over the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation with the goal of improving the treatment of the mentally disabled. Under her leadership, the foundation helped achieve the development in 1962 of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, which now bears her name.
Locally, the University of Utah is home to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Center for Community of Caring. Community of Caring is an evidence-based, nationally recognized character-education program in more than 1,200 public and private schools in 46 states and Canada.
In March 1984, President Ronald Reagan awarded Shriver the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, for her work on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities.
Shriver was married to Sergeant Shriver in 1953. He survives her, as do five children, including journalist and author Maria Shriver, spouse of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Timothy Shriver, chairman and chief executive officer of Special Olympics.
Earlier this year, Eunice Shriver received another honor. Her portrait was installed in the National Portrait Gallery. While much is made of the Kennedy family being the United States' version of royalty, Shriver's apt portrait captured her tireless activism on behalf of the mentally disabled. The painting, the first commissioned by the museum of someone who was not a president or a first lady, depicts Shriver and four Special Olympians.