Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In Praise of Eunice Kennedy Shriver (and Basketball)

“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."

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, at the 1987 Special Olympics World Games in South Bend, Indiana.

It's not like I knew her or anything, but the death today of Eunice Kennedy Shriver fills me with a sadness. Appreciation, yes, most definitely, but an appreciation edged out by a smidge more sadness.

Maybe it has something to do with basketball.

While we were spending a relaxing Friday afternoon with friends, Boo joined our friends' son in their driveway, where they were playing basketball. Boo has been talking a lot about basketball this summer - perhaps from playing it at camp, I guess. He's been asking for a basketball net, so after I woke up from a nap on Saturday, I was greeted with a note saying that they had gone out to the store for ... yes, a basketball net.

Now, I admit, I was less than pleased about this. Those damn 7' nets are unsightly and with the plethora of storms and heavy winds we tend to get around these parts, I have visions of the damn thing smashing through the dining room windows. But since the purchase was underway - and since I had just been granted a much-needed 3-hour nap - my protests would be for naught.
But still, it's not like my kids (particularly Boo) are giants. They take after my side of the family and are smaller than their peers, often mistaken for a few years younger than they really are. So, acquiring a basketball net seemed a little foolish. What good could come of this? I thought. Exercise, yes, but an exercise steeped in futility and frustration seemed more likely.

Putting this thing together was arduous, but after close to 5 hours, we had a net. I went outside with the camera, admittedly, not expecting much.

I took shots as I watched Boo take shots. Shots like this one ...

... which resulted in this ...

(I know the photos are blurry. That's on purpose. I have my reasons.)

I'm thrilled that I have the photo of Boo's first slam dunk (and he is too), but the real photo was the look on his face - a look that I missed because I was, obviously, behind my superstar. The husband has described it as priceless, that there are no words.

Our family doesn't have first-hand experience with Special Olympics (Boo never played in Special Olympics, but he did spend a season on a Challenger Baseball team.) That experience was everything that you hope for when you sign your kid up for such an activity. Sure, there was lots of screaming and hollering by the parents ... when any of the players made a hit or scored a run. It didn't matter if your kid was on the blue team or the red team; we cheered for them all.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded what grew into Special Olympics in 1962, after a mother called her in desperation because she could not find a summer camp for her child.

According to today's New York Times which recounts an interview Mrs. Shriver did with NPR, she 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 to go into the camp, but you have to get your kid here, and you have to come and pick your kid up.’ ” With that, the conversation ended. For years, Camp Shriver provided physical activity for developmentally challenged children.

The New York Times says "[t]his was an extraordinary idea at the time. The prevailing thought had been that mentally retarded children should be excluded from physical activity for fear that they might injure themselves. As a result, many were overweight or obese."

This was in a time when people with disabilities were not encouraged to play sports. Hidden away, out of sight.

Kind of like what I wanted to do on Saturday with my son and his interest in basketball.

On Saturday, I was no better than those in 1962 when the basketball net arrived at our house. I didn't think this was going to amount to anything. That it was more trouble than it was worth.

I'm certainly not proud of myself for not believing he could do this, that he would enjoy this, or be good at it. As parents of kids with special needs, I believe we are all guilty on occasion of falling into this swamp of doubt - and then, suddenly, you see a slam dunk into a 7 foot high basketball net by a kid who is a head shorter than your average 7 year old.

And that, I think, is what is at the crux of my feeling sad today at the loss of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Because I believe that the mentality I had on Saturday is sometimes the more prevalent one in society. That we still have a ways to go, so many more strides to make and barriers to knock down, because for every person who believes in kids with disabilities, there's a dozen more who never will. Who mock and denigrate them by cavalierly using the word retard, who tease, who bully, who take advantage, who deny services, who are of little faith.

Eunice's view is what we still need to aspire and strive for - myself included. To have a sense of total acceptance, to see beyond the disability and the limitations.

For many of her 88 years, she did that. And today I wonder, who will take up the torch, the flame of the Special Olympics legacy that Eunice Kennedy Shriver passed to us today in her passing?

"She set out to change the world and to change us, and she did that and more. She founded the movement that became Special Olympics, the largest movement for acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities in the history of the world. Her work transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and they in turn are her living legacy." (from the Shriver family statement)


Stephanie said...

Beautiful tribute, Melissa. Really lovely. I am praying for the family in their sorrow and also celebrating the life of Eunice with them in my heart.
xo Steph

Kim L said...

This is a great post! Thanks for sharing the personal story about your son and basketball. It seems that even though society has progressed a long way on this issue, we still need plenty of people like Eunice Kennedy Shriver to be advocates.

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Stephanie and Kim L., thank you both for seeing what I was trying to convey in this post. Glad you liked it!