Washington-area Catholics paid tribute to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics who died Aug. 11, praising her as a woman of faith and action, whose spirit and determination could be seen in her lobbying for legislation in the halls of Congress and cheering on the sidelines for athletes with disabilities.

Msgr. John Enzler, now the pastor of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington, got to know her well when he was pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac from 1990-2004, and Shriver was often a daily communicant there and at other nearby parishes. He called her a "formidable conversationalist" and a "strong-willed woman" who played a key behind-the-scenes role in establishing the inclusion program at Our Lady of Mercy School.

He said she left a three-fold legacy: "her commitment that all people are children of God, a complete respect for life from conception to natural death, and behind all that, a faith that God's always in charge."

Francesca Pellegrino, a Blessed Sacrament parishioner who is the president and founder of the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, has a 17-year-old son, Alex, who has an intellectual disability. She noted how he began competing in the Special Olympics as an 8-year-old, "who didn't know which side of the basketball court he was on. Now he's winning gold medals."

Special Olympians, Pellegrino said, learn to play as a member of a team, with the support of a community cheering them on and "the belief that everyone has something to offer and can achieve something."

Pellegrino praised Eunice Kennedy Shriver's legacy in founding the Special Olympics. "She really did teach us, as Jesus taught us, to love all God's children... She has had a tremendous impact on me and on my son, and on the entire world. She's really changed the way the world perceives individuals with disabilities, making sure they're treated with dignity and respect."

Shriver regarded Special Olympians as members of her extended family, Pellegrino said. "She was always in the midst of the athletes, trying to teach them something new" - in the pool teaching athletes swimming strokes, and on the soccer field teaching athletes how to kick the ball. Pellegrino said that Shriver brought that same spirit to the halls of Congress, as she lobbied for laws, seeking justice for people with disabilities.

"She knew how to rally people around to make things happen," Pellegrino said.

The Special Olympics began as Camp Shriver, a summer camp for youth with developmental disabilities in the backyard of the Shrivers' Rockville home. The Special Olympics, which Shriver began in 1968, since then has involved millions of athletes around the world.

Joan Hosmer, now the principal of Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, served as a counselor at the summer camp at the Shriver's home when she was a teenager. That experience impacted her life, and helped inspire her to become an educator..

"I was inspired by Eunice Shriver, who came out every day to work with the children," Hosmer said. "I was inspired by her passion, her openness, her dedication to providing this opportunity for children with special needs who were in the camp."

By the end of camp, Hosmer "realized what warmth and enthusiasm and joy those children brought to life. That really touched me."

The fact that Our Lady of Mercy School offered an inclusion program helped inspire Hosmer to become principal there 10 years ago. Hosmer told a story of a recent eighth grade graduation at Our Lady of Mercy, when students cheered for a classmate with Down syndrome as she walked to the stage, with a big smile to receive her diploma. Mercy students, she said, "learn to embrace differences, and they carry that with them throughout their life. They are friends."

Edward Orzechowski, the president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, praised Shriver for her work on behalf of the Kennedy Institute, an agency of Catholic Charities. "Few people have lived their lives with the tireless energy that Eunice Shriver did in her lifelong dedication to individuals with developmental disabilities. The Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute's ability to serve and work with those individuals, and their families, is largely due to Mrs. Shriver's very public compassion and advocacy on behalf of a group who had never before had a voice - or such a dedicated champion."

Fifty years ago in October 1959, the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute opened its doors, serving children with developmental disabilities.

Five Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur were the founders and first teachers of the school program. Needless to say that the first few years of beginning were full of challenges.

But along came Eunice Kennedy Shriver who wanted to help us herself with the physical fitness program there.

She was aware that the sisters taught every subject in the early years including physical fitness (such as it was.)

Mrs. Shriver came to our school one and sometimes two days a week to teach physical education to our children of ages 5-18! Each time, she brought along one of her own children, beginning at a "toddler" age. The weather did not matter. All five classes were alerted that Mrs. Shriver was here and ready to meet them outdoors in the school yard for their exercises. She spent a half hour with each class. We bundled up the little ones who did not want to go "outside" in the cold, and if they were too slow, Mrs. Shriver appeared at the classroom door with "Sista, sista, are the children ready yet?"

Mrs. Shriver came to our school for two years and was our teacher, our helper, the one who encouraged us and was grateful for the work being done to spread the word of caring for families and children with special needs. Mrs. Shriver became our friend!

Two years later she was the one who helped us to find and fund a salary for the first physical education teacher at Kennedy. You see, she was already creating for the world the concept of "Special Olympics," and our students at Kennedy Institute were going to be one of the first groups to be a part of all of it. Mrs. Shriver was the advocate behind the Kennedy basketball team that became "competitive." She rejoiced with them at annual sports banquets and gave speeches that were dynamic. It was their turn to cheer her - their friend, who never gave up on them and their abilities to change the world.

A few years later, when she knew that we were doing a Saturday program for children in the Washington area that was a recreation program including crafts and square dancing, she joined us and again brought along her own children to help. Mrs. Shriver taught her own children at an early age to come and be with our friends with disabilities, to be part of the fun, to begin to understand the gifts of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In this century, we have seen the fruit of her efforts with her own sons and daughters who continue to carry the torch and make the world aware of the strength and giftedness of our children and adults with intellectual disabilities who can transform lives!

It was wonderful to see Mrs. Shriver at Special Olympic events calling forth to each runner or ball-thrower to keep on trying and how the cheers went up for each one who did their best. She taught us that winning was not important but trying was, and our children and adults reached into the strength each had and proved the truth of that statement.

She became our mentor and one we admired tremendously. Most of all, parents, teachers, children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities knew in their hearts that she was their true friend.

Today, I found myself mourning for the loss of Mrs. Shriver. The communities of many families and organizations, and most of all her special friends of Bethlehem House and Faith and Light prayed for her as she prepared to go home to God. We will miss the dynamic lady who cheered for us. But she would want us to keep the spirit of always trying and showing the world the gifts that persons with disabilities possess.

Mrs. Shriver was a woman of privilege who gave and gave of herself in service to others; a woman of faith, who never stopped believing in others; and a woman of love, who leaves a legacy that must continue for generations to come.

I rejoice, now, in remembering "Mrs. Shriver."

(Dolores Wilson is the director of Bethlehem House in Washington. Wilson served for many years as the director of the Archdiocese of Washington's Office for Persons with Disabilities.)