Thursday, August 13, 2009

People who change the World

Because we had similar class schedules one term, my late friend Charlie Allinson and I frequently walked back to the fraternity house for lunch at Colorado State University (known far and wide as The Harvard of the Rockies) lo those many years ago. Along the route we traveled was a day school for differently-abled kids, most of whom had Down Syndrome. One day on a whim (prompted by Charlie I suspect) we stopped and found that a sole teacher was present. So, we asked if she'd like a break to eat her brown-bag lunch. She was most grateful and we joined the kids on the playground for some swinging and the like. Though we were a bit hesitant at first, not knowing what to expect, the kids appeared delighted with our company and soon we were all laughing. I was struck by their innocence. We began visiting on a semi-regular basis, though I suspect that Charlie made it a regular stop each day.

While I was too self-absorbed at the time to realize the later impact these visits would have on me, they were epiphanic for Charlie. He veered suddenly from his career path of joining the family business. Instead, he continued his education until receiving a Master's degree in special education. He then devoted his life to enhancing the lives of all differently-abled people in Colorado. My friend Charlie made a difference, changed the world for the better and did so until the day we lost him.

At the same time we were enjoying our lunchtimes with the kids, half a continent away Eunice Kennedy Shriver rolled up her sleeves and boldly went public with the trials of growing up in a large family with Rose Mary, her sister. Rose Mary was 'mentally incapacitated' and institutionalized for much of her life. This was not an unusal occurrence in that generation nor in our own, but Eunice Kennedy Shriver set out to change not only the perceptions held by 'normal' people, but to enrich the lives of all who to some degree shared Rose Mary's differences. That she did.

The Special Olympics were born of her Herculean efforts and from around the world, people young and old now participate in these unique competitions between athletes who had previously stood outside the fence, invited only to spectate. I've seen this, had the privilege of a reserved, up close and personal seat in the grandstand to see the evolution, the revolution. I have watched the daughter of dear friends grow from childhood, participating, growing, learning. I have done so through the film of tears more than once.

A decade ago I was coaching a softball team made up of ten-year-old girls including our youngest daughter when Isabel's dad called and asked if she might be a bat-girl for the team. My response of "No", but followed with the thought that, while the team didn't need a bat-girl, Isabel could be on the team if she wanted. She wanted. Her dad was overjoyed and I'd like to say my gesture was heroic. Frankly, it never occurred to me that mine was an unusual decision. It came on the spur of a moment.

The result was beyond conception, well past any expectation. Parents watched humbly as pitchers from our foes moved up a step or two and softly lobbed pitches for Isabel. No adult gave instructions to do so. Kids made the decisions. When Isabel hit the ball, opposing players had no thought to throw her out. It was sportsmanship in the purest form. Isabel was joyful each time she pranced to first base, waving all the while. This experience jump-started an athletic career which has included playing field hockey for her high school team, a 'normal' team, as well as performing with her partner as guests at the National Figure Skating Championships. All she ever wanted was to be like her brother and sister, competing on the field, court or ice. And she is. Talk about self-esteem. Her high school classmates voted her Homecoming Queen her senior year. How about that. Isabel embodies all the good things that Eunice Kennedy Shriver must have envisioned for the future.

For all of the faults, warts and pimples attributed to members of the Kennedy clan, and there are many, Eunice Kennedy Shriver stood apart. She understood the concept of the 'Bully Pulpit', the power of the media and grasped them by the throat. She set sail on a journey to a land even she could not have imagined. She changed the world, though. She changed us all. Now that is change we can believe in.

In the words of the late, great St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck, "Pardon me while I stand and applaud."

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