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25 Stories of KEEN's Past, Present and Future
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Elliott Portnoy, KEEN Founder
The Hartung Family Talks KEEN Vision
Karen Migdail on KEEN Family and Special Moments
For Athlete Yonina, KEEN is Home, KEEN is Family
Expanding Social Experiences for a Young Boy with Autism
Nurturing, Rewarding, Zen-Like: That is KEEN for Volunteer Michele

Elliott Portnoy, KEEN Founder

Elliott Portnoy, Global CEO of Dentons has been called the “King of K Street” and a “Top Washington Lawyer.”  To KEEN, he is our founder, champion and long-time volunteer. 

He started KEEN, or Kids Enjoy Exercise Now, as a small, informal program in Oxford, England where student volunteers came together to play tennis and other activities with children with disabilities.  Elliott brought this concept back to the states and shortly after, established KEEN in the DC area in 1992. With help from a handful of parents and volunteers, KEEN started with one program in a school gym in Rockville, MD.   Today, KEEN Greater DC offers 29 free-of-charge exercise and recreation programs throughout MD, DC and VA serving more than 475 children, teens and young adults with disabilities. 

When asked to reflect on hitting the milestone of 25 years of service, Elliott shared, “It is an extraordinary validation that the simple idea of matching up young people with disabilities with trained volunteers to experience sports continues to fill a vital need in the community.”

And how has the founding and growth of KEEN impacted him personally?  “KEEN literally has been life changing and is without a doubt the thing in my life about which I’m most proud, other than my three kids. But it’s more than just pride. I actually believe some of the most important lessons that I have learned have come from being involved in KEEN:

• Lessons around patience;
• Measuring progress in small steps;
• Tolerance; and
• Inclusion.

It still profoundly affects what I do every day professionally and for that I’m enormously grateful.”

For Elliott, KEEN’s greatest impact on the community is not just serving young people with disabilities but through the education of volunteers. “We have literally tens of thousands of volunteers who have come through the KEEN program here in DC and for the first time met a person with a disability.  Even if they only volunteered at one session, we hope and we know that the next time they encounter a person with a disability at the mall, in the workplace, in school, they’ll be a little more sensitive.  More attentive, more focused on ability rather than disability.”  And that, to Elliott is what it is all about- creating a community where young people with disabilities are welcomed and included.

The Hartung Family Talks KEEN Vision

From the very first organizational meeting twenty-five years ago to today, the Hartung family has been a constant on the KEEN scene.  Parents Sue and George Hartung were among the core group of families who found gym space, equipment and athletes to make KEEN a reality in the DC area in 1992.

Their children Warren and Emily have literally grown up in the KEEN family.  Now 32, Warren was six when he and a small group of children became the first KEEN Greater DC athletes.  A few years later he was joined by his sister Emily, now 27.

A teacher in Montgomery County, Sue Hartung has devoted over 30 years working on behalf of people with disabilities, but is especially proud of her 15 years of service on both the KEEN Greater DC and National Board of Directors.

“It’s all about vision.  You have to have a vision not only for the individual but of a society where everyone is treated equally and is a valued member of their community. People involved with KEEN always have that vision.”

Warren and Emily, who both have autism, have taken part in sports, swim, bowling, Tae Kwon Do (pictured below), and music programs over the years.  They found in KEEN a place where they could be active and do things their own way.  "Children with disabilities just don’t get to make any choices about their lives,” says Sue.  "Everything is decided for them.  At KEEN they were able to pick what they wanted to do and express their preferences and it was a huge sense of empowerment for them.”

Sue credits the volunteers for giving her children a chance to have positive peer interactions.  “The exercise is great but it is really the companionship I think that makes it special.”  She will never forget the parent who refused to use the precious respite time KEEN offered for herself. Instead she kept watching through the gym window.   “She said, ‘I’ve never seen anyone enjoy spending time with my child before.’  And that’s really the heart of KEEN, says Sue.

Karen Migdail on KEEN Family and Special Moments

Looking for a weekend volunteer opportunity that did not require a definite time commitment, Karen Migdail arrived at her first KEEN session in the summer of 1992. 
“I loved it!” Karen explains.  “I got home and called Elliott (KEEN Founder) and offered to help.”

At that time, KEEN was in its infancy, only a few months into the programs.  Elliott welcomed Karen’s help and soon, along with his wife, Estee, the three of them were running KEEN.  Karen recalls walks from her office on L Street to meet Elliott on K Street downtown.  “We would literally meet on K Street and exchange the KEEN floppy disk (the files on KEEN athletes).”

For Karen, what made and still makes KEEN so great, is the impact it has on participants AND volunteers.  “KEEN continues to educate volunteers, many of whom have never met or spent time with a person with disability.  I remember conducting an orientation where I could tell a high school volunteer was hesitant and uncertain about how he was going to handle working with a kid in a wheelchair.  By the end of the session, I just saw two kids having fun, a volunteer and an athlete. The disability forgotten.”

After 25 years of volunteer service, what is it about KEEN that keeps her coming back? The answer is simple for Karen- the KEEN family.  The whole picture: athletes, families, volunteers. KEEN is a community where Karen, and many volunteers, have made great friendships and connections over the years. Being with KEEN since virtually the beginning, Karen has seen the impact of her volunteer service on athletes both at KEEN programs and in her community.  "It has been wonderful to see KEEN athletes become adults in the community,” she says.  Noting that she and a long-term KEEN athlete work in the same office building.

When asked to reflect on KEEN’s impact in her life Karen shared, “It has taught me patience.  It has given me incredible perspective.  KEEN teaches the important lesson that progress is different for every person. There a lot of moments at KEEN where you see an athlete do something that you know they weren’t able to do before.  The look on their faces, they are so joyful, when someone catches a ball, makes a basket……… those are the little moments that make KEEN so special.”

For Athlete Yonina, KEEN is Home, KEEN is Family

Yonina Fairley is a fighter.  She is also a proud and happy KEEN athlete.  Yonina can be found enjoying activities at KEEN Club, dancing on the stage at KEENFest and, along with her mother, being an advocate for KEEN at various community events. 

Yonina, now 22, began participating in KEEN at age 9.  “KEEN is her thing.  This is her home.  She just loves it!” shares Mom, Adrienne. 

Diagnosed with Down Syndrome at birth and with Spondylolisthesis at 17, things have not always been easy for Yonina.  After being diagnosed with Spondylolisthesis, a condition where one vertebrae is slipping over another, Yonina went into an 8 and ½ hour surgery and came out in a life threatening situation.  She spent 28 days in the ICU, coded and had to be resuscitated. 

Thankfully, Yonina is a fighter.  She emerged from the ICU and went into rehab.  Doctors told her mother she would be there for 2-3 months.  Yonina had other plans.  Adrienne explains, “She fought her way back.  Coming back to KEEN again, that was one of the things in her head when she was in therapy.  She was determined to get back.”  And she did.  After just 19 days in therapy, Yonina came home. 

Her first event back was KEEN’ sports festival event, an annual gathering of all athletes, families and volunteers.  “She came back with this “I am here attitude,” Adrienne recalls. “What KEEN does and the impact it had on her played a huge role in her recovery.”

When asked to share just what it is about KEEN that makes the program such a good fit for Yonina, Adrienne explained, “She especially loves it when she is connecting with typically developing peers.  She is there and thinking, these are my girlfriends and my guys.  It is interesting, she does not connect with everyone.  But at KEEN, she is always happy to be there and be with the KEEN volunteers.  The idea of- these people are embracing me for me.  I think it is the connection to the people who are invested in this and in her.  KEEN is home for her.  KEEN is a part of her family.”

Adrienne credits their wonderful experiences at KEEN with the mindset and commitment to a mission of accepting all young people, regardless of the nature or severity of their disability.  “I really do believe that it is the mindset, which starts at the top, all the way down.  People are genuinely committed to what KEEN stands for.  As time went on, KEEN staff and volunteers always held on to those values.  What I get from the organization is a sense of dignity and respect. GENUINE LOVE. THAT IS KEEN.

Expanding Social Experiences for a Young Boy with Autism

El'iyah is like any 6-year-old boy in that he wants to play, have fun and be loved and accepted.  But El’iyah has autism, complicating his world and making these things harder to achieve. He is nonverbal and makes up some of his own gestures to communicate, so socializing is hard. Understanding what he wants and needs can be a challenge. He also has a bit of anxiety and is prone to clinging to where he feels safe.

El'iyah has been a part of KEEN’s DC programs since the fall of 2016, and his mother, Alisha, attributes his social skills development to his participation. “KEEN is his only opportunity to socialize. The rest of his time is spent at school and with therapists and family,” says Alisha. At KEEN, El'iyah is paired one-to-one with a volunteer coach for a 75-minute session focused on playing at El’iyah’s speed and in his way, using a variety of sports equipment and toys—balls, indoor bowling pins, scooters, tunnels, hand puppets, etc.

His family and school have noticed a change over the past year, so much so that his school gave him an award this spring for Most Improved Social Skills!

While the kids who participate in and the core volunteers who manage and oversee El’iyah’s KEEN Sports program are generally the same throughout the year, the individual coaches who work one-to-one with the kids are different from session to session.  This means El'iyah socializes with new people from session to session, and that has helped him develop his skills, says Alisha. She has noticed that El'iyah’s eye contact is getting better and that her already happy kid is happier. “He is increasingly letting more people into his world,” she says.

Nurturing, Rewarding, Zen-Like: That is KEEN for Volunteer Michele

“KEEN is a nurturing environment where you can be yourself no matter whether you are an athlete, a volunteer, or a parent.  We all help each other to make life just a little bit better for each other.”

That is how Michele Doyle, an eleven-year KEEN volunteer describes the organization.  Michele began volunteering at KEEN Swim in Washington, DC in September 2006.  Lucky for KEEN, after those first sessions, Michele was hooked!  Over the years she has helped in various capacities and currently serves as the Volunteer Program Coordinator for the KEEN Swim programs in Maryland and Washington, DC.

Michele has seen first-hand the benefits of participation in KEEN programs, specifically in her swim programs. She shared how so many of the kids start out completely afraid of the water but after time, they jump right in.  She remembers one young boy, “Jonathan was seven when he came to the DC Swim program.  He was so frightened he clung to me.  I would have scratches because he held onto me so tightly.  Now at 17 he is jumping around the pool doing handstands.  We often have to get his parents to help us get him out of the pool because he loves it so much!”

And another boy who, “…. went from being scared of the water and barely putting his toes in to four years later, putting his face in and moving all around.  He shows up in a rash guard, with goggles on, so excited to get in the water.  His fear is gone.”

Michele has also witnessed the impact of the program on kids who are paraplegic or quadriplegic.  “Their faces would come alive in the water.  They can move and play in the water and participate in a way they cannot on dry land.”

What makes Michele keep coming back after 10+ years? “The families, the athletes, the volunteers!” she explains.  "When I'm at KEEN, the volunteers and athletes want to hang out with you unconditionally.  There is no judging.  There is no hidden agenda.  These people just want to enjoy time with you.  You are also fully in the present when you are with our athletes.  There is no room in your thoughts for work or worries.  You can only be there with them in the moment.  I find the laughter and friendships truly rewarding and the hours are zen-like/meditative to me.  KEEN is my favorite part of my week!”