John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr.
Giving more than money
By John Cloud
July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:26 p.m. EDT (2026 GMT)
It would have been so easy for him just to write a check. People
who write checks--at least those of the size he could
afford--nibble foie gras at fancy fund raisers and cut ribbons at
buildings named for them. Checks are simple.
But John Kennedy Jr. never took a simple path to public service.
Not at 15, when he and his cousin Timothy Shriver trekked to
Guatemala to help earthquake survivors rebuild. Not in his 20s,
when he helped devise a program to improve treatment for the
disabled that started in gritty New York City neighborhoods and
is now being copied overseas. And not when a charity he worked
with wanted to know how kids in a drug-prevention program were
faring, and Kennedy went to talk with some himself.
In many ways he embodied a new, entrepreneurial kind of Kennedy
philanthropy. It doesn't diminish the Shrivers' Special Olympics
or Jacqueline Onassis' fund raising for Grand Central Terminal to
note that John practiced a hands-on generosity that reflects a
younger generation of givers, folks impressed more by proved
outcomes than by black-tie benefits.
Take the group that could be Kennedy's most important legacy,
even if George survives. He founded Reaching Up in 1987, two
years after his aunt Eunice Shriver initiated one of those
peculiarly Kennedy intrafamily competitions. She assigned the
Kennedy kids the task of inventing projects to help people with
mental disabilities, a cause she and her siblings had long
championed. The kids would vote on who had designed the best
proposals, and a family foundation would award the winning ideas
John threw himself into the work, interviewing experts and
reading academic literature. Rather than finding a needy hospital
to toss cash at, he discovered a mostly ignored problem, the
inadequate education and dismal pay of frontline workers in
mental health. They are working poor, without health insurance or
hope of mobility, yet they care for people like Kennedy's aunt
Rosemary, left deeply retarded by a lobotomy, as well as millions
of others with disabilities. "What he understood," says Deborah
Shanley, a Brooklyn College dean, "is that you're never going to
have quality care if the people in this field can't afford to get
into undergraduate programs, can't elevate their skills and have
no hope of moving up the career ladder."
Kennedy developed a program of elegant practicality that became a
$50,000 winner. Reaching Up helps health-care workers help
themselves through training programs it has persuaded local
officials to fund at several New York colleges. Hundreds have
learned to do their jobs better through the training, and many
have been promoted as a result. Kennedy also lent the family
name--and with it, a measure of respect--to the Kennedy Fellows, a
group of 75 health-care workers chosen each year for $1,000
"But it wasn't just the money," says Margaret Wallace, who
emigrated from Jamaica in 1980 and was a poorly paid teacher's
assistant for the blind before becoming a Kennedy Fellow in 1992.
John was personally involved, "asking, how is the course work,
what job do I want to do, what's my future?" Wallace got a degree
in special education last year and now teaches those with
cerebral palsy. Nearly all the 400 fellows over the years have
stayed in the disabilities field.
Reaching Up was the culmination of years of experimenting with
public service. When Kennedy was younger, he dabbled in groups
his mother supported and embarked on vaguely beneficent
adventures in Africa and elsewhere. In 1985 he studied health
care at the University of Delhi in India. Trouble was, when he
asked himself what he could do for his country, he didn't quite
know the answer. The day after Kennedy passed the bar exam in
1990, family friend Ted Van Dyk phoned him at his desk in the
Manhattan D.A.'s office. "I said, 'How do you like it there?' And
he said, 'Oh, it stinks. I'm just going to do this for a while to
meet my family's expectations, and then I'm going to do something
else.'" As John grew older, "he became less flip about things,"
says Richard Wiese, a fraternity brother from Brown University.
"He was always socially conscious, but he matured [and] was
starting to put some of his assets to use."
When Kennedy did engage the world of philanthropy, he did it on
his terms. "It's not like he just picked up the stock family
charities," says Joseph Armstrong, a friend of Jacqueline
Onassis'. He followed his mother's footsteps in the arts,
patronizing a theater group and the Whitney Museum. But the staid
Whitney of her day was quite different from today's, which
features edgier work that Kennedy liked. He allowed his
beneficiaries to get closer to the family than she ever would.
According to her friend William vanden Heuvel, perhaps the only
time Onassis ever opened her home for a fund raiser was at John's
behest, for Reaching Up.
Kennedy was close to charities all his life and knew they could
sometimes be wasteful. Even as a college student applying to
tutor inner-city kids in the summer of 1982, he asked program
director Iris Kinnard several pointed questions. "Was my program
any good? What kind of successes had we measured? Whoa!" recalls
Later, Kennedy favored groups such as the Robin Hood Foundation,
whose board he joined in 1991. It's part of a new breed of
foundation that operates like an investment house, closely
studying potential grantees and carefully measuring results.
(Similarly, the Newman's Own/George awards, given by Kennedy's
magazine and Paul Newman's food company, recognize not firms that
give away huge sums indifferently but those that help improve
their workers' lives or help create jobs in urban areas.) Kennedy
appreciated the efficiency of Robin Hood, but he brought
something else too. "He would look at the deep analytics of a
project--say, a school we were going to fund--but then he would
also say, 'Let's go talk to the kids,'" says Robin Hood chairman
Peter Kiernan III.
In the past few years, Kennedy's fame meant he could grant
extraordinary help with the smallest gestures. His name added to
a plea for government funding would rivet politicians' attention,
for example. In 1996, to aid Martha's Vineyard Community
Services, he auctioned off a bike ride with him, a privilege for
which a couple paid $12,500.
What is perhaps most remarkable about his service is that Kennedy
rarely talked about it. "I knew him for 15 years and saw him all
the time, and I didn't know half the good works he was involved
with," says a friend of John's. Kennedy often asked Reaching Up
not to use his name in press releases, fearing they would lead to
coverage of him instead.
Though Kennedy is gone, probably none of the groups he worked
with will disappear--not even Reaching Up, which has become
integrated into New York universities and the health-care groups
it helps. But all his charities will suffer. "His presence was a
great draw for fund raisers, frankly," says Fred Papert,
president of the 42nd Street Development Corp. More than that,
"his leadership will be missed," says Bill Ebenstein, Reaching
Up's executive director. "John had a way of bringing people
--With reporting by Ellin Martens and Romesh
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Cover Date: August 1, 1999