Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

Inspiration for Head Start

Updated on 8/19/2009 1:12:47 PM.

By: Eunice Kennedy Shriver

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.

Dr. Gray was excited at the thought that these children could be educated in a regular classroom. We visited the different centers and observed, for example, mothers who were tossing a ball to their children and those who were getting their children to walk in a straight line. The motor activities each child was able to perform were impressive, as was their ability to communicate.

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.” I said to him, “That’s wonderful, Sarge, but you must set aside a certain percentage of the funds of this program for disabled children because they are the ones that made this enormous discovery.” He said, “I certainly will.”

When we arrived back in Washington, he contacted Dr. [Robert] Cooke and Dr. Ray Adams from Massachusetts General Hospital and the process for Head Start began. The work of Dr. Gray influenced much of the efforts of the planning committee for Head Start.

I have often repeated this event and its significance to Sargent, and I told Scott Stossel, the author of Sarge’s book, that we must include this event in his book Sarge.

The credit for Head Start should be given to special children, not to Sarge and not to me. Neither of us would have thought of this idea if we had not traveled to Nashville, met Dr. Gray, and watched the children do their extraordinary performances.

Peabody College and Vanderbilt University benefited from Dr. Gray’s work as well as through obtaining a large grant from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation to establish the John F. Kennedy Center. In retrospect, Dr. Susan Gray was a pioneer who influenced the development of children worldwide.

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