Alumni Newsletter - Writing

Inspired by Peabody's Work

The late Eunice Kennedy Shriver was known around the world as the founder of the Special Olympics and a champion for children with disabilities. Two of Shriver's achievements, both of which have had far-reaching influence, have roots at Peabody College. Research conducted at Peabody on preschoolers came to provide the idea behind the Head Start program, while cognitive and developmental psychology research led to the establishment of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.
Eunice and Sarge Shriver visit Peabody College

Eunice and Sarge Shriver visit Peabody College

HEAD START                                           
Shriver and her husband, Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., visited Peabody College several times during the mid-1960s. At the time, Sargent Shriver was the head of President Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity. As a result of the Shrivers' meeting with Susan Gray, a psychologist at Peabody, and a visit to a Kennedy Foundation project run by Gray, the Early Training Project, the germ of the idea for a national program of assistance for at-risk children was born. The Early Training Project was an early intervention model that worked with students with below average IQs. The Shrivers saw in Gray's program a way to enhance the lives of disadvantaged preschool students in a formative period of their lives.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver wrote of the experience in a first-person account called, "Inspiration for Head Start".

      "In 1964, Carl Haywood and Nicholas Hobbs invited me to visit Peabody College to observe their research and accomplishments, especially those of Dr. Susan Gray. At that time, Dr. Gray was conducting a study on small children with mental retardation examining the impact of tutoring with their parents upon the likelihood of these children entering into normal grades in school.                   

As I was about to leave on my trip to Nashville from my home in Washington, D.C., I asked Sarge if he wanted to accompany me. At that time, he was organizing the War on Poverty. He seemed rather reluctant at first but he decided to accompany me. When we landed in Nashville, we were met by Dr. Gray. She invited us to view two or three different centers where the parents were working with their mentally retarded children to upgrade their skills.                   

At the conclusion of our visit, we talked for a while with Dr. Gray. Sarge and I were impressed with her results in improving the abilities of mildly retarded children. During our flight back to Washington, Sarge turned to me and said, "If you can do this with disabled children, I could do this with regular children all across America."                   

President Johnson authorized the Head Start program in 1964. The program was conceived as a comprehensive community action program which would involve the parents of students, community volunteers, teachers, and healthcare professionals. The goal was to lift millions of families out of the cycle of poverty through education and by addressing deficits in health care, nutrition, and parenting skills.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that close to one million children attend Head Start programs each year. From a small seed of hope that began with Susan Gray's Early Training Project has grown a program that has impacted the lives of millions.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver visits Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (pictured with 
Elizabeth Dykens, Director and Elise McMillan, Director of Community 

Eunice Kennedy Shriver visits Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (pictured with Elizabeth Dykens, Director and Elise McMillan, Director of Community Outreach)

THE VANDERBILT KENNEDY CENTER                                           
On October 31, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed legislation to construct a national network of Mental Retardation Research Centers. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Education and Human Development was founded at George Peabody College for Teachers in 1965 as one of these twelve original centers funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

The construction on the Peabody campus of the Human Development Laboratory (now the Hobbs Building) and the Mental Retardation Laboratory (now the MRL Building) Building, dedicated in 1968, was made possible through funds provided by NICHD, a grant from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, and matching funds from Peabody College. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center was a model in its emphasis in research on education, both to improve practice and to determine the effectiveness of educational interventions.

Carl Haywood, a former director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center remembers Eunice Shriver as a pioneer in mental health research. "She was instrumental in the creation of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) within the National Institutes of Health, the institute that has been the prime source of funding for the Kennedy Center since even before the Center opened," Haywood says. "In addition, through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, Mrs. Shriver stimulated research into the causes, prevention, and amelioration of intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Because of her leadership of the Kennedy Foundation, an enduring pattern of collaboration between private philanthropic organizations and academic/research institutions was firmly established and applied in many settings, with substantial benefits to citizens with intellectual disabilities, to the scientific enterprise, and to the host universities."

Today the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center includes a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, a Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities training program, and is one of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers.

The Shriver's social action and their legacy, once influenced by the work of Peabody College, now supports the work of many Peabody researchers who receive funding from the NICHD for investigations of disabilities and interventions to prevent or ameliorate them.