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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr.

Giving more than money

By John Cloud

July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:26 p.m. EDT (2026 GMT)

TIME magazine

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 $50,000 apiece.

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 scholarships.

"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 Kinnard.

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 together."

--With reporting by Ellin Martens and Romesh Ratnesar/New York


Cover Date: August 1, 1999

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