• 72°

Shriver had big impact on local JA

The summer months have seen a string of celebrity deaths thathave dominated headlines and waiting room talk, but the Tuesdaypassing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver was more than just an item ofgossip for Brookhaven.

The sister of slain President John F. Kennedy and founder of theSpecial Olympics spawned a new understanding of mentally challengedAmericans.

The Brookhaven Junior Auxiliary took notice and fell in linewith her vision in the early 1970s. Though special education is nowhandled by the school systems, in those days the JA took upShriver’s cause and established classes for special needs childrenand encouraged them to compete in the Special Olympics, and bydoing so took their organization to a new high.

“(Shriver) was very inspirational, and the Special Olympics wasvery, very instrumental in our JA sort of being put on the map,”said Martha Ann Peeples, who worked in the program later in the1970s. “It was just a wonderful, wonderful thing for our communityand our JA. Projects like that we did many years ago, we just don’thave these wonderful things anymore.”

One of the first local leaders to emerge in the field wasLavonne Hinesley, a former Brookhavenite who now resides in GulfShores, Ala. She worked in the JA’s special education programs from1972 to 1983.

Hinesley ascended to the position of area director, coordinatingthe program with JA chapters in 11 counties, and took SouthwestMississippi’s first Special Olympians to the third InternationalSpecial Olympics Summer Games in 1972. She took another group tothe fourth installment in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., in 1975.

Hinesley said the Brookhaven chapter began working with specialneeds children in 1970, two years after Shriver founded the SpecialOlympics in 1968. While the JA’s program was already under way, shesaid the real boost came when local JA members were able to meetand speak with Shriver during a meeting at the University ofSouthern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

“She was so gracious, and so caring and so involved with theSpecial Olympics,” Hinesley said. “She wanted us to understand thechildren that had special needs were just like everyone else. Hermessage was that these people can perform up to their ability. Shewas inspiring.”

Brookhaven’s Shirley Estes recalled her service in the JA duringthose times and the impact that meeting Shriver had on her and thelocal chapter. She said the group was already heading in the rightdirection, but meeting with Shriver and hearing her words was anencouragement.

“We realized it was bigger than us,” said Estes, who was amember of JA from 1974 to 1980. “It was going on all over thecounty, and later on it became international. Her dedication tothis particular group of people was impressive. She could have beendoing anything, but she was committed to doing this. It was veryencouraging to us that it was going on at so many differentlevels.”

Peeples, a JA member from 1964 to 1971, said the JA’sestablishment of special education programs – like the ChildDevelopment Center at Brookhaven Elementary School – was criticalin elevating the organization. She said the group was recognizedwith a national JA award in 1970 for the most outstanding newproject of the year.

“Any time you would win an award at the national convention fora special project, then your chapter was kind of on the map,”Peeples said. “Many chapters just went along for years and yearsand years, and they did good things, but they didn’t have somethingthat just jumped out at you for being really outstanding. TheBrookhaven chapter had not won an award like that before, and wewere proud.”

So it was with reverence that the Brookhaven Junior Auxiliary ofold read the news of Shriver’s passing Tuesday, closing one of thegreater chapters of the organization’s history.

“I was very sad, and I just thought there’s a great lady,”Hinesley said. “She did so much for her fellow man.”