1951 to Today
A group of parents banded together and did something that society had never seen before. This is their story – and our origin story – which continues to drive us today.
It was cold outside, the yellowy murmur of streetlights blinking in the lavender cast of winter. Inside the house at 106 Palm Street, though, things were getting heated.
The source of the heat was not the baseboards or the overhead kitchen light, but rather a woman sitting resolutely in her chair at the table. She stewed over a cup of coffee – her anguish ignited while two words kept searing through her mind. “Do something.” “Do something.” “Do something.”
“Do something,” she began to say out loud, to an audience of zero. “We need to do something.”
“Have you ever had something burning in your mind? Well, these words were burned into both John’s and my head.”
This is the vivid recollection of Evelyn Kennedy – a housewife and mother of two from Bridgeport, Connecticut - in 2006, fifty-five years after that moment in 1951 that still stirred up her emotions. The moment? When the family doctor, after consulting with other physicians and specialists, delivered the professional diagnosis and “care plan” for Evelyn and John’s seven-year-old son, Brian.
“Mister and Misses Kennedy, you have a mentally retarded child. He was born retarded. He will die retarded. Our only advice to you is, for the sake of your other son and your extended family, to put him away… and forget you ever had him.”
Evelyn continues, her chin strong but fighting off the quivering underneath. “Now if ever there were words given that pierced the heart. You can imagine. Put him away? No. And forget him? God no.”
The Kennedy Collective is one of the most comprehensive organizations supporting people with disabilities in the United States.
The centerpieces of support are community-based social services and business enterprises. Services range from exercise to daily living skill-building that are delivered through dozens of day support venues, residential living homes, employment placements and activity spaces. In all environments, individuals with disabilities are supervised and encouraged to express themselves, socialize, and seek their own unique definition of independence.
Said more succinctly, each individual is seen, supported, and valued.
One of the most tangible examples of the culture is the annual calendar – called A Unique Perspective – which began as a seed of an idea in 1983 to showcase the awe-inspiring artwork of the individuals who have graced and been supported by The Kennedy Collective throughout the years. The work is so powerful that the calendar is a top-seller online, and in local shops such as the Palm & Able thrift store – an enterprise owned and operated by The Kennedy Collective.
The concept of business enterprises emerged decades ago, as a means for The Kennedy Collective to employ people with disabilities – and to showcase them as a viable and reliable labor resource. Today, the organization has working relationships with hundreds of local businesses and corporations, the number of which seems to grow by the day.
In all, more than 2,000 individuals with disabilities are supported each year.
The cumulative number of those whose life trajectory has been positively impacted by The Kennedy Collective? Somewhere in the 100,000 range – and that doesn’t include the thousands of professional staff members, community partners, Board members, and donors who have contributed over the years.
Staring up at those lofty figures now, it’s astounding to realize that The Kennedy Collective was born from the compassion, determination, and bravery of just thirteen parents.
Not long after Evelyn Kennedy’s kitchen declaration to “Do Something,” another bitterly cold winter night. Wednesday, the seventh of February 1951, to be exact.
Sideways snow was blanketing Palm Street. Through the wind cut the distinct noise of a knock on the door. It was the first of twelve.
Evelyn greeted each person and led them to the living room. They were all parents, like the Kennedys, who had a son or daughter resigned to stay at home because there were no educational options for “mentally retarded children." The parents weren’t together more than five minutes – complete strangers to each other – when a life-long bond was formed that, as Evelyn recalled in 2006, “nothing in this whole world was going to break. We were going to get for our kids what was their natural birthright.”
Keep in mind, getting what was one’s natural birthright was much easier said than done. It was a very different time, with very different views, and very tall barriers to overcome.
Truman was President. A young kid in the New York Yankees farm system, Mickey Mantle, was two months away from making his Major League debut. Patti Page was belting out Would I Love You over the airwaves. Across The River And Into The Trees was the polarizing New York Times bestseller, the only of Ernest Hemmingway’s career. And, society didn’t acknowledge the equality or abilities of “retarded people.”
Evelyn and the twelve parents were undeterred.
After their introductory meeting, the group would meet almost daily in the basement of a local church, hatching plans to change perceptions and get the support their children deserved. They attended school district meetings to inquire about what forms of educational curriculum were available for their children. They walked through neighborhoods – cigar boxes in hand – to collect donations. They recruited people who do not have a child with a disability. They educated the public on the needs of families who did.
On April 11th, 1951 – barely eight weeks after they first met – the group filed for incorporation under the Connecticut General Statutes, as the Parents and Friends of Mentally Retarded Children of Bridgeport, Inc. By the end of the year, they would be directly responsible for the first public school classes becoming available to children with cognitive disabilities in all of New England.
To call The Kennedy Collective “innovative” is both accurate and a misnomer.
The organization has certainly expanded and reimagined community-based programs and social enterprises in the most significant of ways. But at its core – its beating heart – lives a fire and fortitude that has never changed since the initial spark.
In the 1950s, The Kennedy Collective organized the first school for children with disabilities in New England, and advocated for special education legislation. They wrote legislation that made it mandatory for Connecticut school systems to provide educational services for children with cognitive disabilities. The 1960s saw the organization establish the first two group homes in the state of Connecticut for persons with “mental retardation.” In the same decade, they hosted the first Four Seasons Ball – a signature event to raise awareness and financial support. More facilities were built. More vocational training was created.
The group formed an Auxiliary in the 1970s which, among other responsibilities, operated the organization’s new Over and Under thrift shop. The 1980s saw more facilities expanded, four training businesses started, four new residential homes opened and national CARF accreditation secured. In 1986, the organizational name was amended to honor Evelyn, becoming The Kennedy Center, Inc. In the 1990s, a robust Travel Training service was created, and programs were extended to inner city families and other populations.
The turn of the century and the subsequent two decades saw more of everything – facilities, fundraising, partnerships, programs, awards, recognitions, all directed at supporting and enriching the lives of people with disabilities.
In 2021, as the organization concurrently celebrated seven decades of excellence, the leadership saw an inflection point on the horizon – an opportunity to strengthen the agency's position toward growing and thriving for the next 70 years.
The Kennedy Center was renamed The Kennedy Collective – a bold underscoring of the impact that can be created when we unite, to empower and employ, as a collective.
The power of a collective effort. Since 1951, in every program, with every bit of advocacy, for every individual with disabilities, it has been the organization’s everything. And yet, it is a concept that the founders built out of nothing.
No previous experiences.
No downloadable business plan.
And a burning desire we can all identify with – because we’ve all sat at the proverbial kitchen table, stewing over a cup of coffee, absolutely determined to get equality for someone we love.