Play On! Why We Celebrate Eunice Kennedy Shriver (EKS) Day

September 17, 2013

“The right to play on any 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,” Eunice Kennedy Shriver (EKS), Special Olympics Founder.

With these moving and powerful words, Eunice Kennedy Shriver kicked off the 1987 Special Olympics World Summer Games in South Bend, Indiana. Mrs. Shriver believed in the abilities of people with intellectual disabilities even during a time when society did not. In 1968, she held a day camp in her backyard where individuals with intellectual disabilities could train and compete in sports. Life for people with intellectual disabilities would never be same after that. Today, the transformative power and joy of sports is shared in many lands and in many languages; more than 4 million athletes compete in 170 countries throughout the world! This September 28 we will observe the fourth annual Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day to celebrate her incredible contribution to the lives of people just like me.

As a young person growing up, I knew I was “different” from other children my age.  I had few friends and often felt left out.  Even when children with disabilities are “mainstreamed” into schools, that experience ends when we go home.  Becoming a part of Special Olympics not only gave me friends to look for outside of school, sports to play and a feeling of belonging, but it also gave me classmates to look for in the hallway or lunchroom. I didn’t feel alone anymore.

Many times over the 19 years I’ve been an athlete, I’ve been asked, “When is Special Olympics?” I smile because Special Olympics is not an event, it’s a movement.  We are what is happening and somewhere in the world there is always a sports, health, community or educational event going on.

Several years ago, I was fortunate to have been selected as one of 12 athletes from around the world to serve as an International Global Messenger, a spokesperson and representative for my fellow athletes. It was a remarkable journey during which I traveled and spent time with other athletes, world leaders and so many others.  It was during a trip to Shanghai for the Special Olympics World Summer Games, that I was privileged to meet Eunice Kennedy Shriver herself, an honor I will never forget.

During those years I served, I became friends with my fellow International Global Messengers from Australia, Germany, Kenya, Hong Kong, Romania, Argentina, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and two other athletes from the United States. As part of our training we learned about each other’s countries and customs.  Suddenly my world seemed larger and now when I hear about unrest and troubles in other parts of the world, I think about my friends and hope they are alright.

This experience I had is true for thousands and thousands of other Special Olympics athletes who have competed all over the world.  We are united not just by our disability, but by our love for sports.  We train and compete with courage and determination. 

So, this year, as we mark EKS Day, my hope is that we can honor Mrs. Shriver’s legacy and “Play On”!  In spite of our challenges, in spite of our disability, no matter the weather outdoors, or even the political climate, on September 28 we will remember Mrs. Shriver for all she has given to us in the way of sports and inclusion. We Play Unified and Live Unified because Mrs. Shriver taught us that on the playing field, we forget about our differences and recognize our common traits.   Another quote of Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s that I like to remember, and my hope is you will too, is, “There is no purpose nobler than to build communities of acceptance for all.”

Play On.

Martha Hill

Special Olympics Wisconsin Athlete

International Global Messenger Class of 2007

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