Mary Ellen, my great-aunt, was a huge part of my growing-up years.
When she passed away a couple of years ago, many believed she was the oldest person with Down syndrome living in Mississippi. When she was born in the 1940s, the doctors advised my great-grandmother to put Mary Ellen in a special home. My great-grandmother just couldn’t do it.
By the time I came along, Mary Ellen was a part of life in the small town where we grew up. People knew her. They knew what she loved and enjoyed her laughter. For years, she folded the church bulletins every week during prayer meeting. She had purpose in her life and was loved by many.
Once when she and I were watching a television show about a boy with intellectual disabilities, she said, “That boy is like me.”
I think Mary Ellen knew much more than many realized. Even so, she didn’t have many chances to be around many people like her.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver started Special Olympics in 1967, but it didn’t reach many rural places until years later. Mary Ellen and my great-grandmother were too set in their ways and never considered getting involved with the Special Olympics movement.
I wish they had.
I had the privilege to work with International Special Olympics for two years in the late 1980s. Special Olympians taught many of us much about living and loving.
They also taught me to dance.
I never met a Special Olympian who didn’t enjoy participating in the competitions. But, I never met a Special Olympian who didn’t love Special Olympics dances more.
I’m thinking there’s something the rest of us could learn from that.
Standing with a Greek delegation in Squaw Valley, Calif., for the Opening Ceremonies of the 1989 International Special Olympics Winter Games, I remember hearing athletes recite the oath:
Let me win,
but if I cannot win
let me be brave
in the attempt.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver started Special Olympics because she didn’t like the way her sister (who had a mild form of intellectual disability) was left out of her athletic family’s regular competitions. She put a lot into making Special Olympics a success. She jump-started a momentum that has continued to open doors for a population without many advocates until she came along.
In 1987, at the International Summer Special Olympics Games in South Bend, Ind., Shriver addressed athletes, their families and thousands of others gathered to celebrate the moment. She said:
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.
The right to play on any playing field? You have earned it.
The right to study in any school? You have earned it.
The right to hold a job? You have earned it.
The right to be anyone’s neighbor? You have earned it.
May her good work continue and may she rest in peace.