Best of Buddies
02/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
YOU'D THINK WORLD WAR III HAD broken out," says Anthony Kennedy Shriver with a chuckle, recalling the day last December when he and Jorge Mentado, 39, a good friend who is severely retarded, visited Miami's tony Bal Harbour Shops during one of their frequent get-togethers. "Jorge is very hard to understand. He had on big boots, and his laces were untied. In Cartier's, he'd say hello to every pretty girl and talk to the salespeople. One woman came in with a little dog, and Jorge started petting it. It was like a movie. Those people need to see that sort of thing."
Shriver isn't out to embarrass anyone—he's simply trying to change the world. Founder and president of the volunteer organization Best Buddies, his goal is to integrate the mentally disabled into mainstream society through one-on-one friendships with others. And it has made a difference. Since Shriver, 29—Maria's younger brother—came up with the concept in 1987 while attending Washington's Georgetown University, Best Buddies has grown to include more than 6,500 participants in 172 chapters around the world. "Part of our mission is to make it so people won't stare," says Shriver. "So when you go downtown or into church, they're used to having people with mental retardation in there."
Judy Hales of Miami, whose son David, 12, has had a Buddy for two years, calls the program a roaring success. The first time David went out, she says, "our family all said, 'This is weird! Where's David?' because he never got to go out without one of us." George Zitnay, president of the National Head Injury Foundation and an expert on mental retardation, says getting people like David (who has Down syndrome) into the community is a benchmark in health care. "People with mental retardation have been isolated for too long," says Zitnay. "Best Buddies addresses the need for valued friendship."
Addressing the needs of the retarded is part of Shriver's family legacy. Raised in Rockville, Md., Anthony is the youngest of the five children of Sargent Shriver, founding director of the Peace Corps, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics. Just as inspirational to Anthony was his relationship with his aunt Rosemary. The third of Rose and Joseph Kennedy Sr.'s nine children, Rosemary was born mentally retarded. In a misguided attempt to help his daughter, Joe had her lobotomized in 1941. Rosemary survived the operation partially paralyzed and was later institutionalized, although she was usually present at family gatherings. Shriver, who often sees his aunt, now in her 70s and living under supervised care in Jefferson, Wis., admitted that when he was a child, her visits sometimes made him uneasy. "When we'd go to church, people would stare," he says. "As a kid the last thing you want is to be singled out." At those times his mother became his role model. "It never fazed her," says Shriver. "Even when people were staring, she didn't care."
It was a lesson Shriver took with him to college, where he majored in history and theology "I saw a lot of my buddies sitting around watching soaps and partying, not doing a whole heck of a lot in the community," he says. "I figured it wouldn't take a huge effort to integrate someone into their daily routine." By promoting it as "a cool, hip thing to do on campus," he says, Shriver drew 50 volunteers to the first Best Buddies meeting, pairing them with individuals from group homes and special schools. Enthusiasm for the project continued even after Shriver graduated the following year and was studying for his LSATs. After being constantly interrupted by calls from students at other schools wanting to start their own chapters, says Shriver, "I thought I'd just take a couple of months off to get this going at a couple of other colleges. I never stopped."
With $6,000 in seed money from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, Shriver turned his college project into a full-time job. Today, Best Buddies International Inc. has branches in 37 states as well as in Canada, Greece and India and now includes Best Buddies High Schools, Best Buddies Citizens (for volunteers from corporations and churches) and Best Buddies Jobs (which helps the retarded find work). Headquartered in Miami, the organization has a budget of $2 million, $250,000 of which comes from a grant from the state of Florida. Though Shriver gets help from influential friends like artists William Wegman and Roy Lichtenstein and designers Gianni Versace and Calvin Klein, his main challenge remains fund-raising. His famous name helps, he admits, but large corporate sponsors remain elusive because of competition for charity dollars.
Even at home—a renovated Mediterranean, three-bedroom house in Miami that he shares with his Cuban-born wife, Alina, 30, a full-time student at Barry University, her son, Teddy, 6, and their daughters, Eunice, 1, and Francesea Maria, 2 months—Shriver says he rarely has a chance to relax. Alina doesn't mind. A member of the board of directors and a volunteer, she and Shriver met at a Best Buddies cocktail party in 1991. They married two years later. "We have to go to a lot of functions when I think we'd be better off at home with the kids," she says. "But what Anthony does is great." His goal is to make Best Buddies obsolete. "Hopefully people will just start having these friendships naturally," he says. However, though he doesn't rule out a career in his family's other business—politics—Best Buddies is his mission. "Once you've been touched by it," he says, "it's hard to let it go."
CINDY DAMPIER in Miami