A life's legacy: Evelyn Kennedy saw the 'able' in the disabled
A decision made almost 60 years ago by a housewife and mother turned into a lasting legacy that continues to grow today.
Evelyn Morey Kennedy was not willing to accept a doctor's recommendation that she put her mentally disabled son, Brian, in an institution and just forget about him -- and then start her life over.
Instead, Kennedy began working to create a place where people like Brian would be able to receive the services that the developmentally disabled need to live and work in a manner as fulfulling and independent as possible. That place, which started in Bridgeport as the Parents and Friends of Retarded Citizens in 1951, was the predecessor to the regional agency now known as the Kennedy Center, in tribute to her trail-blazing work.
Kennedy, a Fairfield resident, died in October at the age of 94, and a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in First Church Congregational of Fairfield, the day after her birthday.
"I don't think people realize the impact she had throughout the country," said Martin Schwartz, president and CEO of the center, headquartered in Trumbull but offering programs throughout southwestern Connecticut.
"She was one of the first people that realized that this was needed," he said. "She definitely was a pioneer."
And it wasn't just the creation of the Kennedy Center that Evelyn Kennedy launched with her dream.
Not content with their small center, Kennedy and the other founders spearheaded and wrote legislation that made it mandatory for the state's public schools to provide educational services and programs for children with special needs.
They didn't stop there, either.
"She was instrumental in starting the state Department of Mental Retardation," Schwartz said.
Kennedy was appointed by then-Gov. Abraham Ribicoff to the state Council on Mental Retardation in 1959. In 1964, the Kennedy Center opened the first group home for adults with disabilities that was licensed by the state DMR.
The Kennedy Center's day care, workshop and clinical programs served as pilots for state legislation passed in 1959 to provide state subsidies for community efforts on behalf of the mentally disabled.
She was always actively involved in the agency and its programs, Schwartz said, always cutting-edge. "Her passion was just to be sure `her kids,' as she called them, had the rights and services they were entitled to," he said.
One of those "kids" was Fairfield resident Shaun Brennan, who passed away last week.
"The Kennedy Center was a godsend in Shaun's life, and a relationship that my family will cherish for the remainder of our lives," said Robert Brennan Jr., Shaun's brother.
Shaun Brennan was one of the "most socially well adjusted Down Syndrome person anyone met," Brennan said. That made the social contacts that he made and events he attended monumental in his life, he said.
"The Kennedy Center gave Shaun the opportunity to grow and develop," Brennan said, "and Shaun would not have been the same wonderful person he was if he had not been exposed to the Kennedy Center. Mrs. Kennedy deserves all of the accolades that she is receiving."
And many accolades there have been over the years.
In 1968, she was a nominee for the national Kennedy Foundation Awards and, in 1976, received the national Lane Bryant Award for community service. In 1991, President George Bush called her to congratulate her for 40 years of service and advocacy for the disabled.
In 1999, Kennedy and the center were named one of the six recipients in the U.S. to be given the Special Achievement Award from the National Rehabilitation Awareness Foundation, and the next year, Kennedy received the first Connecticut Treasure Award.
Now, the Kennedy Center is one of the largest and most comprehensive rehabilitation facilities in the northeast, and serves clients with a wide variety of disabilities.
It has more than 650 employees and serves over 1,800 clients each years, with the help of over 450 volunteers.
What started as an educational program for children, it now includes group homes, supportive and competitive employment with community businesses, birth-to-three services, teen activity centers, a certified adult day center, travel training services and the creation and growth of six small businesses employing Kennedy Center clients.
Schwartz said it's hard to know what it would be like for the disabled if not for Evelyn Kennedy's vision, and her work to make that a reality. "I don't know if they would have gone as far as they have," he said. "I think it would have been a much slower process.
And what about Kennedy's son Brian, who started Evelyn Kennedy's quest?
Today, he is retired after working for 30 years and earned a pension from the city of Bridgeport. He bought his own condominium and lives independently with the support of the Residential Services Department of the Kennedy Center.
EVELYN KENNEDY MEMORIAL SERVICE
Her work led to establishment of the Kennedy Center, a regional agency that provides a range of programs for people with disabilities.
The service will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday in First Church Congregational, 148 Beach Road, Fairfield.
The Kennedy Center and her family are organizing the tribute. The service will feature performances by members of the Kennedy Center Cabaret cast. Speakers will include community leaders, relatives and friends.
Kennedy family plans the establishment of a named fund in her honor through the Kennedy Center Endowment. Donations can be made directly to the Kennedy Center, 2440 Reservoir Ave., Trumbull, CT 06611, or call 203-365-8522, ext. 229, for more information.