Organization celebrates 20 years of helping kids with disabilities -- Gazette.Net



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What started with five children in a gymnasium in Bethesda has, in 20 years, grown into an operation serving 300 children, with 23 sports programs and 150 volunteers across the Washington, D.C., area.

Kids Enjoy Exercise Now, or KEEN, has spread beyond what founder Elliott Portnoy could have imagined.

On Sunday, June 3, KEEN Greater D.C. celebrated its 20th year, at its annual sports festival.

Hundreds of families, volunteers and sponsors gathered in Hadley’s Park in Potomac to play volleyball, soccer and baseball, bounce through an inflatable obstacle course, fly kites, play with a giant parachute and have a tug-of-war.

The nonprofit pairs volunteers with children who have developmental or physical disabilities for sessions of music or sports, such as soccer, basketball, swimming, bowling and taekwondo.

Portney founded KEEN in England, brought it to Bethesda in 1992, and now is helping more than 800 children in seven U.S. cities and England. The program will be in Dallas and other cities soon.

The organization not only helps children, but helps to open the eyes of its volunteers, Portnoy said.

“For many volunteers, it is their first encounter with someone with a disability,” he said, “They become more sensitive, aware and receptive … in some ways, that is the greatest benefit of the program.”

In 20 years, the program has had 25,000 volunteers.

Beth Wenger of North Bethesda said she never realized the depth and range of disabilities before she started volunteering 19 years ago.

On her first day, she coached a boy with autism.

“I knew he liked soccer, from his profile,” she said. “I found a soccer ball. He took it and he flopped on top of the soccer ball, and bobbed there. And that was it the whole time. There was nothing that I could do to get him engaged … That was huge for me.”

KEEN is noncompetitve, designed to let children do things they enjoy, Wenger said.

“You celebrate much smaller things and make a bigger deal out of accomplishments,” she said.

On average, 80 volunteers help out during sports sessions every other Sunday at Tilden Middle School in Bethesda, said Beata Okulska, KEEN’s executive director; other activities take place throughout the month.

KEEN’s activities are free to its participants, who are 25 and younger. The program is supported by grants and donations, according to the group’s website.

The total budgets in 2011 for KEEN USA and KEEN Greater D.C. were $1.1 million and $537,000, respectively.

For parents, KEEN is a saving grace — giving them a much-needed break, Okulska said.

Karen Brocato’s 20-year-old son, Joey, has been in the program since he was 6.

Joey, who has Down syndrome, has difficulty communicating and finds transitions hard.

But KEEN is his home, said Brocato of Gaithersburg.

“It is, ‘KEEN now, KEEN today, please,’” she said. “He knows the people. He feels safe there.”

jbondeson@gazette.net