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Tony Rossi

Radio Host/Producer

A School of the Heart
August 30, 2015

Throughout history, people with intellectual disabilities like Down Syndrome have often been shunned by society and even violently abused. But Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver has found that the young people he’s worked with have been his greatest teachers because of their kindness, wisdom, determination, and inherent dignity. His interest in intellectual disabilities stems partly from the fact that his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded Special Olympics because of her sister Rosemary’s affliction. He has now written a Christopher Award-winning memoir about his life entitled “Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most.”

During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” Shriver discussed the difficulties he had in his youth trying to find his way in the world and integrate his faith with his career path. He said, “I came shockingly to the conclusion that most of the people I thought of as role models—celebrities, Nobel Prize winners, CEOs, politicians—they really weren’t giving me anything. I found [answers]…in the insights of centering prayer, in the great and long tradition in Christianity and other traditions that teach the power of silence. Then I could actually see more clearly the gifts of my fellow human beings, who often were seen by the culture as being disabled or deformed or invalid. I began to have great moments of fulfillment in their presence.”

One of the people who had the most profound impact on Shriver was Loretta Claiborne, a young woman from the housing projects of York, Pennsylvania. Born nearly blind and with an intellectual disability, she attended public school where she was beaten up, chased, and mocked. That experience hardened Claiborne. But when she got involved in Special Olympics, she suddenly realized that she had gifts, and that she could share those gifts with people who trusted and cared about her.

Shriver recalled, “I met her when I was in my thirties, but she charged into the world of my work world and started staying with our family, Linda’s and my family and our children. With such extraordinary genuineness, she had the capacity to see to the heart of things. I realized I’m not here to help Loretta Claiborne. Loretta Claiborne is here as a prophet almost, as a spiritual coach for me!”

Working with Special Olympics participants has also given Shriver a better understanding of God and what it means to be created in His image and likeness. He said, “God is small, tender, light. God is beautiful, universal, unconditional, always. I learned that I had to learn God, not earn God. Learning God was doing less, being quieter, more patient, more vulnerable. Learning God was recognizing that God was already there, and it was my job to welcome God, not to go out and look for God.”

Shriver also calls on church communities to invite people with intellectual differences to play a wider leadership role in parishes. He concludes, “We need to see men and women with intellectual differences in multiple roles, not just in service roles—not just attending, but teaching in our churches. How many churches in the United States have a person with Down Syndrome who’s a teacher? What a tremendous loss that the answer to that is probably zero. Imagine what we’re missing! And imagine if Jesus walked in and said, ‘What do you mean your only teachers are people who have college degrees? When did I ever say that?’”

If your church community has people with intellectual disabilities in leadership roles, we’d love to hear about them. Share their stories by sending me an email at


For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, LISTENING WHEN GOD SPEAKS, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: