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Shriver's legacy lives on through Best Buddies

The sun has yet to rise over the oak trees that line this windy road in Carmel Valley, a sleepy town in Northern California's wine country, when Anthony Kennedy Shriver steps on to a makeshift stage with his sister Maria Shriver while nearly 1,500 bicyclists watch from below. They are preparing to kick off the Audi Best Buddies Challenge, a 100-mile bike ride from Carmel down to San Simeon along the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway to raise money and awareness for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

It has been a month since their mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver passed away, but she is still seen and heard when Maria and Anthony speak about the cause that was their mother's lifeblood. Nearly 41 years ago, Eunice Kennedy At the first Special Olympics, Shriver spoke to a crowd of fewer than 100 people at Chicago's Soldier Field. She recited the words of Roman gladiators: Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.

As Maria Shriver stood in front of a larger audience gathered for the same cause, she recited a prayer that she reads every morning: God may I trust that I am exactly where I am meant to be today. May I believe in the infinite possibilities that are born from love and hope.

The two quotes have come to define what the Special Olympics and Best Buddies represent. While the Special Olympics have re-shaped the world's view of the intellectually challenged through sports, Best Buddies has taken that cause a step further by nurturing relationships that last long after the competition is over.

The idea for Best Buddies, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, came to Anthony while he was at Georgetown University helping his mother with the Special Olympics. "I grew up around the Special Olympics and a lot of the Special Olympics games I would go to when I was a kid took place on college campuses," he said. "So the college would host it for two or three days and the college kids would be very involved and volunteer. And then when the games were over, everyone would go home. I would often think, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could have this throughout the year?'"

As amazing as the Special Olympics made the athletes feel during the competition, Shriver wanted a way to make that feeling last year-round. He wanted the volunteers that hugged the athletes at the finish line to become their friends and hug them after class or after a hard day. He wanted them to help them find jobs, help them become leaders in the community and show others what they could do if given a chance, not just on the playing field but in everyday life.

In 1987, at the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute in Washington, D.C., Shriver started a volunteer program that was a precursor to Best Buddies. It paired university students with people with intellectual disabilities of similar age. Two years later, he founded Best Buddies, which has grown from one chapter to more than 1,400 on middle school, high school and college campuses worldwide -- all with the same goal to enhance the lives of the mentally disabled by providing friendships and integrated employment.

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Sitting on the front lawn of the Senator's House on the Hearst Ranch in San Simeon after the race, Anthony Shriver is thinking about his mother as he looks at his 15-year-old daughter Eunice taking pictures of him. "My mom loved this event because it was a celebration of life and people with intellectual disabilities and the enormous talent they have," he said. "We're here because of her and my family is committed and passionate about this issue because of her inspiration and passion to change lives one at a time. I just want to continue to share her with everyone and continue her legacy."

Anthony Shriver's passion for the cause came long before he understood what the cause was. He vividly remembers swimming with his mentally challenged aunt Rosemary Kennedy and being shocked at how well she could swim. "She was someone who was severely challenged, but she was the best swimmer in the whole family," said Anthony. "She had 24-hour-a-day care, she couldn't go to the bathroom on her own, she couldn't get out of bed on her own, she couldn't eat on her own, she couldn't do anything on her own. So, as a little kid, I didn't think she could do anything but when jumped into the pool she was equal to all of us. That always resonates in my mind that every person has a certain talent and gift from God and our challenge is to figure out what that gift is and celebrate it, support it and showcase it."

As powerful and revered as the Kennedy men are in this country's history, it was perhaps the relationship between the two Kennedy sisters, Eunice and Rosemary, that will have made the greatest impact on the world and the 190 million people with intellectual disabilities. Eunice was especially protective of Rosemary growing up, and did everything she could to make her feel loved in a society that viewed her as nothing more than "retarded" after she was lobotomized in 1941. It was her dream to one day make society much like the pool the Kennedys swam in, where everyone was equal.

"I have four brothers, but when Anthony spoke at mumy's Irish wake he said something that was very powerful to me," said Maria Shriver, who has made it a point to hire people with intellectual disabilities in the governor's office. "He said that what she had done was make him feel that he was the greatest human being on the planet. Best Buddies does the same thing. It makes people think that the greatest thing that can happen to them is to be themselves, and that being themselves is the greatest gift that they have."

The impact that Best Buddies has had in its first two decades was displayed after the race when it was announced that James and Laura Stankard, and their 7-month-old son Vincenzo, who had heart surgery three months ago, had raised a record $56,000. James, who began as a Best Buddies volunteer nearly 20 years ago when he was at Boston College, connected with Laura, whose sister was also involved with the program as a special education teacher, about six years ago.

Last year, the couple found out their son would be born with Down syndrome. Instead of feeling confused and saddened by the news, they felt blessed after years of building friendships with those with intellectual disabilities.

"We've been exposed to so many amazing individuals that have touched our lives, and Vincenzo's already beginning to touch lives himself," said Laura, who pushed Vincenzo in the stroller during the race. "We're going to provide him with all the opportunities that we can and we know that he can and will accomplish anything he dreams of."

The difference that Eunice Kennedy Shriver continues to make is not only evident in the smiles on the faces of the children at the race, but at the sheer growth that both Best Buddies and the Special Olympics have experienced since their inception. (The two will hold their first joint event in Washington D.C. next year, organized by Anthony and his brother Tim, the Chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics.) Yet, after the race is over and after all the handshakes and warm wishes Anthony Shriver gets, he makes an admission that most founders and chairmen don't make following a successful event that raised millions of dollars.

"I'd love to go out of business," he said. "I know that's not the goal of most companies, but that's definitely my goal. I'd love to be in a situation where people with intellectual disabilities naturally integrate on their own and are able to get employed on their own and don't need us. I think it will happen, and one day we won't need an organization like Best Buddies, but we'll be here for as long as they need us."