Frontline Initiative John F. Kennedy Jr. Tribute

Part of the PCMR

John F. Kennedy, Jr. was appointed to the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation (PCMR) in 1995 by President Clinton. As a PCMR member, he brought to the table his deep commitment and devotion to people with disabilities and the people who make up the workforce of individuals who assist people with disabilities. John was deeply concerned about the quality of supports and services for people with developmental disabilities. He demonstrated keen insight into an often neglected aspect of the disabilities movement by focusing on the relationship between quality of care for people with mental retardation and the manner in which we treat the people who provide direct support for people with mental retardation.

This modest man, who could have had or done anything he wanted, chose to work on behalf of those who support people with disabilities. In his group photo with fellow members of the PCMR, John stands smiling in the second row, wearing his name tag. One of the group, he worked very quietly, but his accomplishments were many. Through his private foundation, Reaching Up, Inc., John initiated an innovative program that allowed direct support workers who wished to stay in the field an opportunity to complete their college education. Here, in his own words, he describes the work of the Reaching Up Foundation as part of the commencement address at Washington College, Maryland in May of 1999 — 

Today is your day and I hope it is just one of the many that will define who you are and what you make with your life. As Thomas Paine said, ‘Youth is the seed time of good habits, in individuals and in nations.’ You have played a vital part in your community and I know that your good work will not end with graduation.

 Now, I should tell you something about the organization you have so kindly and generously acknowledged here today. Ten years ago, Jeffrey Sachs (who’s somewhere in the audience) and I founded Reaching Up in order to improve educational and career opportunities for the workers in health, education and social service, the frontline workers, those who teach and care for people with disabilities and children with special needs, disadvantaged youth, the chronically ill, the frail and elderly.

Typically, entry level caregivers receive virtually no training and earn just above the minimum wage. They have few prospects for advancement and are more likely to leave their jobs than to stay, more often than not to flipping burgers in McDonald’s or Burger King because that pays them a lot more money than being a direct care worker. Reaching Up and City University of New York joined together into a partnership to create opportunities for thousands of direct care workers to enroll in job-related courses than can lead to undergraduate degrees.

Through our Fellows Program, we have also provided college scholarships and career mentoring to 400 exemplary workers. Since 1990, half of them have graduated with baccalaureate or master degrees. One quarter have completed certificates or associate degrees and, more importantly, 95% of them are still employed in those jobs. Many of those who’ve completed their degrees have become social workers, teachers and psychologists, and some are even running the human service agencies [that they served in as entry-level workers — editors revision]

What this means is that our most vulnerable people in our society receive better care and support and their families feel more secure. Employers experience less turnover and caregivers are better trained, better compensated and better appreciated. The colleges where they attend benefit from their real world experience and are enlivened. The families of direct care workers are not struggling as hard to make ends meet. Their children have also benefited, many of them attending the best colleges in the country.

No doubt many of you know what it means when I say “service is its own reward” and I hope you continue to serve. For me, working with Reaching Up has been a tremendously rewarding experience and I’ve learned a great deal from it.

You have learned a great deal at this college but your learning must continue to be a lifelong experience that is informed by your direct involvement in the lives of your fellow citizens. As George Washington wrote dozens of times, over and over to practice his penmanship when he was a young man: ‘Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.’ Thank you very much for this honor. Good luck.

Over the years, John touched the lives of countless direct support workers and people with disabilities through Reaching Up and the PCMR. John brought direct care professionals together on a national scale to further the principles he cared about. Through his foundation, he co-sponsored many initiatives of the PCMR including the Next Generation of Leadership Symposiums. His collaborative efforts and financial support produced a number of PCMR publications including Opportunities for Excellence: Supporting the Frontline Workforce; Voices of the Next Generation; and the five-part series on inclusion With a Little Help From My Friends: A Series on Contemporary Supports to People with Mental Retardation.

In accepting his presidential appointment to a second term on the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation, John F. Kennedy, Jr. established a mutual agenda for PCMR and Reaching Up in cosponsoring a national conference on Poverty and Early Onset Disability. As the designated host of this event, John selected the conference dates of February 22 (George Washington’s birthday) and February 23, on the Wednesday before his plane disappeared. PCMR and Reaching Up are going forward with the conference, in his memory. As PCMR stated in its press release at the time of his death, “We will miss John and will honor his life and spirit by continuing to work for social justice for people with disabilities with the grace, dignity and respect that he inspired."

This article was co-written by Jane Browning, the current executive director of PCMR, and Gary Blumenthal, the previous executive director. Both Jane and Gary worked with John in his capacity as a committee member