Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver and daughter Kathleen are launching a new initiative called UNITE

By Rachel DeSantis
June 21, 2020 09:00 AM

Tim Shriver and his 26-year-old daughter Kathleen never expected that at this age, they’d be eating dinner together every night for three months and working side by side for 12 hours a day.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, that’s exactly how they’ve been spending their time. While it’s helped them grow closer, it’s also helped them develop a vision to bring the Special Olympics – founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Tim’s mother and John F. Kennedy sister — into modern times.

“[Kathleen] saw a pathetic older man, unable to understand the changes in the culture,” Tim, 60, jokes to PEOPLE about his daughter’s input on his social media skills. “She’d call me and say, ‘Have you posted this? Have you done that?’ …. She’s taught me a heck of a lot about how to trust the power of connection.”

Kathleen and Tim Shriver
Kathleen Shriver

Together Kathleen and Tim, who is the chairman of the Special Olympics, have been working toward bridging that cultural and generational gap, in part through a new initiative called UNITE, which kicked off in early May with a live 24-hour global event that featured messages from stars like Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Garner and Sean “Diddy Combs.”

“The whole idea of UNITE is that everybody belongs,” Tim says. “I’m lucky that I have Kathleen to help me ease into understanding her generation without anger and without anxiety, but really just having my eyes open, and I hope I’ve done the same.”

UNITE was already in the works before Kathleen headed back to the family’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland to social distance with her dad, mom Linda, sisters Caroline and Rose and Rose’s fiancé amid the pandemic.

Tim and Kathleen Shriver
Kathleen Shriver

But being holed up in a house with her father has only helped grow the project — as well as the pair’s relationship.

“I think that’s something quarantine has almost forced on us that’s been a gift of it, is that you have to have those conversations because you are with people so intimately for such a long period of time,” she says. “Before it could’ve just been like, ‘Oh, I’m leaving, I’m going to go out for dinner, or I’m going to do something else.’ But now it’s actually having to have those conversations, and really improving so many parts of our relationship.”

Family has always been key for the Shriver and Kennedy families, as well as for Kathleen, who left her job at a tech firm in December and will head to Columbia Journalism School in the fall.

Kathleen and Tim Shriver
Kathleen Shriver

That close bond was put front and center last April, when she became head of the inaugural Special Olympics Founder’s Council, which she started alongside her brother Timbo Shriver and cousins Tommy Shriver, Molly Shriver, Christina Schwarzenegger and Natasha “Tashi” Hunt Lee — all grandchildren of Eunice, who died in 2009.

“It’s our way, and the Special Olympics’ way, of keeping our family involved in the movement,” she says. “It’s been a really cool way to connect with my grandma. We strategize, and we go back and we do tell stories of grandma and what she would have said about that or what she would have said about this or what she would want here. And that’s been a really cool way to remember her, and [her sister] Rosemary, too.”

Kathleen says Eunice and Rosemary’s relationship has always been of special importance to her, and that she still recalls watching Rosemary sit at the table and hearing Eunice translate her words as a child. Rosemary, who was intellectually disabled and died in 2005, has long been credited as the inspiration behind the family’s focus on service.

Kathleen and Tim Shriver and family
Kathleen Shriver

“I thought that was the most amazing thing in the entire world and has inspired my relationship with my cousins and my father and the rest of my family members because of the power I saw in that relationship and what it drove my grandma to do, which was change the entire world,” she says.

As for UNITE, Tim says it’s reminiscent of the inclusive world his mother hoped to build. So far, the initiative’s social channels have been spreading the word through daily wake-up calls, which users can partake in with the chance to have their responses featured.

A recent example that struck Kathleen in particular was her Jewish friend’s excitement over taking part in a wake-up call from Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren that encouraged people to share the ways in which they could re-fuel their soul amid the strains of the pandemic.

“We’re inviting people who are open to seeing the world through this lens, through the lens that doesn’t demonize others, which is not easy,” says Tim. “But once you see it, we’re inviting you to help us build it.”