Frontline Initiative John F. Kennedy Jr. Tribute

Reaching Up:
John F. Kennedy, Jr. and the Soul of Service Delivery System


William Ebenstein is the executive director of Reaching Up and the CUNY Consortium for the Study of Disabilities

Reaching Up is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1989 by John F. Kennedy, Jr. Its purpose is to support higher education and career advancement of frontline workers in health, education, and social service occupations. In association with The City University of New York, the largest urban university system in the country, Reaching Up developed new college level courses and specialized training programs for direct support workers. Over the last ten years, 10,000 individuals employed as group residence workers, classroom aides, job coaches, mental health workers, home care workers, personal care attendants, nurse aides, child care workers, and youth counselors have enrolled in certificate programs that have been created at 15 public colleges throughout New York. These credited courses can be integrated into associates and baccalaureate degree programs in related fields.

Higher education is the cornerstone of Reaching Up’s attempt to address the chronic problems of high turnover, low wages and minimal training of frontline workers. John was an especially strong advocate of public higher education and felt that the most reliable and efficient way to upgrade knowledge and skills, and support the career advancement of low wage earners, was to increase their access to college. He was aware that in our society the socioeconomic fault line that separates those who are “making it” from those who are being left behind runs through higher education.

John also started the Kennedy Fellows program which has provided scholarships and career mentoring to over 400 exemplary workers. He contrasted “instrumental” mentoring aimed at achieving specific outcomes and “classical” mentoring that addresses the development and empowerment of the individual. On the one hand, he stressed the importance of Fellows achieving concrete objectives, such as maintaining college enrollment, making progress toward a degree, continuing to be employed and advancing in their careers at a human services agency. By any of these measures they have been very successful. On the other hand, he spoke of the goddess Athena, who appears in guise of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey, as the patron of classical mentoring. He challenged the mentors to embody Athena’s “wise counsel” but warned that, like the warrior goddess, mentors must sometimes fight for and protect the rights of both workers and people with disabilities. In other manifestations the mentor is a “divine sister,” friend and companion to those who are engaged in the difficult task of balancing work, school and family life. One pleasant surprise of the mentoring program that John created is that a great deal of informal mentoring and professional support take place. Fellows often identify individuals who are helping them quietly behind the scenes, providing timely advice at moments of decision, and encouraging them to become their best selves. John imagined exemplary direct care workers as modern-day heroes assisted by Athena-like mentors.

John’s involvement with the Kennedy Fellows reflected some of his deeply felt values. His good manners and personal courtesy were rooted in a profound respect for other people, whether they were rich or poor, powerful or unassuming. John had a personal relationship with hundreds of direct care workers, some of whom he knew for more than ten years. It was second nature of him to bring respect and respectability to direct care workers. It could not be otherwise. For John, recognizing and dignifying direct care work was an extension of his personality. Therefore, it was very easy and enjoyable for him to embody this principle. He loved interacting with the Kennedy Fellows and was awed by their dedication and accomplishments. 

John served on the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation (PCMR) from 1995 until his death. PCMR, in association with Reaching Up, published Opportunities for Excellence: Supporting the Frontline Workforce which he presented to President Clinton in the Oval Office. In 1996, Reaching Up, PCMR, and American Association for Mental Retardation (AAMR) co-founded the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP). Through these efforts, workforce issues continue to receive much needed national attention. In addition, Reaching Up sponsors international exchange programs for frontline workers from Jamaica, Vietnam and Ireland. John was interested in the way that differing cultural, economic, political and social factors influence the emergence of new service delivery models.

Reaching Up was founded on the premise that a quality service delivery system is linked to the creation of quality jobs for direct care work. Implied in this perspective is that the destinies of people with disabilities and their support staff are intertwined and that an alliance between them is possible. John defined quality in terms of the daily interactions between folks with disabilities and direct support workers and envisioned a service system in which they were both respected and empowered. He also recognized that mothers, fathers, and siblings are also direct care people and share a special kinship with caring staff. Human services organizations, he believed, should be designed to support partnerships among people with disabilities, parents, direct care staff and professional mentors. John discovered the soul of the service system in these sustaining relationships.

John helped workers find their collective voice and listened to what they had to say. Now they will have to speak up more for themselves. The City University of New York has established a John F. Kennedy, Jr. Institute for Worker Education, which will provide a permanent home for Reaching Up. Working together through this new Institute and the National Alliance, we will try to continue what John started, but we will miss him terribly.