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25 Stories of KEEN's Past, Present and Future

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
KEEN, A Family Affair
Beyond the Label: KEEN Teaches JHU Students to Focus on Ability
Making a Difference: Volunteer Charlie Gilbert
People with Disabilities Can Achieve Great Things
Finding a Sense of Belonging at KEEN
The Power of KEEN
Corporate Partner Spotlight: Total Wine & More

Pure Fun and Enjoyment at KEEN 
KEEN: A Volunteer Perspective 

KEEN: In Gordy's Words 
For the Love of KEEN

Volunteer Lela on Growth and Friendship at KEEN
The Nickels: Supporting KEEN for 23 Years 
Happy at KEEN

KEEN Greater DC Board President: Burt Braverman
Not Just Community Service: Bullis and KEEN
The Stein’s- Lifelong Volunteers
Athlete Spotloght: Dale 
History Partnership: Marriott International

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!”

KEEN, A Family Affair

For the Penney family, KEEN is not just about receiving, it is about giving too. 

Lucienne, now 12, has been participating in KEEN’s Maryland programs since she was six.  Lucienne is a young, happy girl who has cerebral palsy, with significant visual impairment.  

Back in 2011, Mom, Kati, was looking for a community program for Lucienne, but nothing seemed to be the right fit.  Many were inconsistent, lacked structure or were one-time special events that did not help Lucienne in the long run.  That was, until she found KEEN.  “KEEN is just for HER,” Kati explains. “KEEN is a place where she can be a kid and we, as the parents, don’t need to go in and figure out how to adapt or modify it for her.  The program is designed perfectly for her.”

With two older sisters, Lucienne was often on the sidelines for soccer and basketball games, cheering them on.  Lucienne herself loves sports; basketball is her favorite.  Being a part of KEEN, Lucienne is able to participate in sports in her own way.  At KEEN, she not only plays basketball but will play tag, do the hula hoops and ride scooters. “KEEN has exposed her to different activities and different people through the volunteer coaches.  It has encouraged her to try new experiences, teaching her change, small and big, from which she has really benefited.”

Lucienne also enjoys the social side of KEEN, having the opportunity to engage with her peers and teenaged volunteers.  Another big plus, “KEEN has given her independence.  She used to feel like she always had to be with me and my husband.  But not at KEEN.  KEEN is her own time, her own program.”

For the Penney’s, KEEN has impacted their entire family.  Two years ago, Lucienne’s sister, Arianna, started volunteering at KEEN. She so enjoyed the experience, she recruited some of her friends and classmates at Georgetown Visitation to get involved.  They are now regular volunteers.  Lucienne’s parents have grown close and made friends with other KEEN families over the years.

Kati explained it like this, “As a testament to how valuable I think KEEN is, through our Penney Girls Foundation, for the past five years we have financially supported the organization. We recognize the significance and benefits of KEEN.  When I look at KEEN, I look at all these different angles coming off.  We are not just on the receiving end, we also want to give back.”

Beyond the Label: KEEN Teaches JHU Students to Focus on Ability

KEEN Greater DC’s collaboration with Johns Hopkins University is giving future doctors and therapists a better understanding of the people they will treat.  Every semester since fall 2012, JHU Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology majors have earned credit by taking a KEEN practicum class. 

Those who completed the practicum say it was an exceptional opportunity to learn from young people with neurological disorders such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. “It’s bad to learn only in class.  Then you get all labels.  When you learn and you meet real kids you understand more, like what the parents are going through and how you need to help the kids,” shared one practicum student. 

“I think patient interaction is so important. When you see these kids you think, ‘How do I get through to them?  Some of them can’t even talk.’  But then you learn how to interact with them, therefore how to better help the special needs population.” 

As a result of KEEN’s growing partnership with Johns Hopkins, the organization expanded, opening KEEN Sports Baltimore in October 2013.  Supported by JHU students, KEEN now offers two sports programs, serving nearly 60 young people with disabilities. 

The impact continues to be great. “I started doing KEEN last year.  I had a lot of fun.  We learn about all these disorders in school.  We can tell you the genome but seeing the pheno type here and interacting with children with cerebral palsy and autism, and learning about it, just really bridges the two.”

Another student explained how the practicum taught him to focus on abilities rather than disability.  “When you learn about these disorders you think these kids can’t do anything.  But...all these kids set goals for themselves and they want to play and they’re really interactive and fun to be with.  When you sit in the gym and interact with them, they smile and the whole room lights up.  It’s a great experience.  You can’t teach that in a class.”

Making a Difference: Volunteer Charlie Gilbert

Charlie Gilbert has been a steadfast presence at KEEN’s Montgomery County programs, almost since the beginning. 

Luckily for KEEN, back in 1998 Charlie was looking to give back to the community.   Charlie remembers, “I was looking for an opportunity to volunteer on the weekends, but my work schedule was still unpredictable.  KEEN was great because there wasn’t a required time commitment beyond one day at a time.”

In the early 2000’s, as his work schedule changed, Charlie was able to volunteer more frequently.  In 2002, KEEN Executive Director, Beata Okulska, asked Charlie to take on a leadership role as a volunteer program coordinator and he agreed.  This fall will be Charlie’s 15th year as a KEEN volunteer leader!

In addition to serving as a Volunteer Program Coordinator for the Sports programs at Tilden, Charlie can also be found helping run the Sports Festival and supporting KEEN at the Kids Euro Festival and other events. 

“Charlie is fantastic!  Our kids love spending time with him.  He is so patient and caring with each and every one of our kids. He has been a key volunteer and supporter for so many years.  I don’t know what we would do without him!” shares Beata, KEEN Executive Director (pictured above with Charlie).

Over the years Charlie has watched KEEN grow, adding more athletes and sessions and opening new programs.  But more importantly for Charlie, “What has stayed the same is the friendly and accepting atmosphere.  At KEEN, kids with disabilities have friends to play with on the weekend that they often wouldn’t have otherwise.  In addition, the parents get some time for other things while knowing their child is in good hands.”

Charlie’s positive and welcoming attitude is one of the many reasons KEEN athletes flock to him.  “I enjoy being relied upon.  It is a good feeling when people can count on you.  This seems to be a place where I can do that and make a difference,” he shared.  Charlie even admits, “On occasion, one or two athletes will follow me around all session.”

Talking with KEEN parents, staff and volunteers, it is clear that Charlie has made a great impact on the organization, contributing to its growth and success for nearly two decades.

People with Disabilities Can Achieve Great Things

Joyce Koons Honda Buick GMC has a long history of giving back to the community, specifically when it comes to helping children in need.  In 2012, the dealership was looking to partner with a local charity serving young people with disabilities.  Vice President, Angela Killinger, also a former autism specialist for Fairfax County, turned to the Rabbu Family, one of her former students for recommendations.

“The Rabbu’s spoke of the difference KEEN made in their sons’ life. Mr. Rabbu wrote the most touching and glowing letter of recommendation for KEEN, we just knew we had to meet with the organization,”
Angela remembers.

Seven years later, the partnership is still going strong.  As part of their Driven by Community campaign, the dealership makes financial contributions to KEEN each year as well as sharing the expertise of President, David Hish as a volunteer member of KEEN Greater DC’s board of directors. 

David shares, “Through my involvement, I see how successful the organization is and how well it achieves its goals. In terms of investing money, there aren’t many organizations that I am aware of that do so much with volunteers supported by such a small staff.  This allows KEEN to dedicate more of the funds raised directly to the programs.”

With the support of Joyce Koons Honda Buick GMC, KEEN has been able to grow and expand its presence in Northern Virginia.  Before the partnership began, KEEN was operating five sports and recreation programs serving 60 young people.  Today, KEEN hosts nine programs in Northern Virginia that will serve more than 125 young people this year.

Why KEEN?  David and Angela explain, “KEEN gives these kids an activity outside of school and home while also giving parents a bit of respite.”  “As a former special education teacher, I see a huge value in weekend and afterschool programs,” Angela continues.

Their commitment also comes from family experience.  David shared, “Our grandfather, who started the dealership, was injured in a diving accident at age 18 and was partially paralyzed.  He was eventually able to walk but never regained all of his motion. Helping people with different needs is a part of our family history. We know first-hand that people with disabilities can achieve great things.”

Finding a Sense of Belonging at KEEN

Six years ago, the idea of sharing and taking turns did not compute in the mind of KEEN athlete Jeremiah, and the social landscape, particularly around his peers, would easily send this little boy with autism into a full-bodied, screeching, screaming, overwhelming meltdown of tears. 

Fast forward to today, and you’ll discover that Jeremiah, now 11 years old, has learned to keep his emotions in check and is a sweet, caring, social butterfly who loves to play with others and be in the spotlight.

He has learned to self soothe, says his mother, Kendra. From time to time she will hear him working through his emotions out loud. “He’ll say, ‘Jeremiah is angry’,” she says, and will instruct himself to count.

Kendra attributes much of Jeremiah’s social-emotional growth and sense of self to his time spent participating in KEEN’s Sports, Music and Soccer programs. 

Jeremiah has been a KEEN athlete since 2011, and his mom says that the consistency of the programs and the opportunity to expend energy and see familiar faces who have become friends has been key.

“He really enjoys KEEN and looks forward to it,” she says. Jeremiah is so wired for a structured schedule that his body knows when it’s a KEEN day, and he does not like to miss it.  “He has a sense of belonging at KEEN. It is his group,” Kendra says, and there’s nowhere else in his life—outside of his family--where he has that.

As Jeremiah navigates his tween, teen and young adult years, KEEN will always be a place where he knows he will find friends, have fun and belong.


The Power of KEEN

Talking to KEEN Board Vice President, Mike Brocato, it is clear that KEEN is an important part of his life and that of his family members.

Mike’s son Joey began attending KEEN programs in 2001, when he was 10 years old.  Joey has Down syndrome which can make it hard for him to be part of environments with lots of people and activity.  He also has some limitations in his verbal communication.

Looking back on their first experiences with KEEN, Mike remembers, “My wife, Karen, tried numerous programs for Joey.  Anything she could identify that might be of interest to him.” 

They knew they had found the right fit when, every Sunday (the day Joey attended KEEN), he would ask if it was a “KEEN day.” Joey benefited from the one-one-one pairing with volunteer coaches.  “He loved the interaction and the opportunity to do new things.  It was all about him and that was perfect,” Mike explains. 

Joey went on to participate in KEEN Sports, Swim, Bowling, KEEN Club and Young Adults Sports over the years.  The sticking point for parents Mike and Karen, “His enjoyment and excitement about going to the activities.  KEEN targets individuals of all ability levels and its adaptable to any kid.  That was the key for us as parents and for him as an athlete.”

As Joey became more involved with KEEN, so did his family.  Brother, Kevin and sister, Courtney, both volunteered throughout their high school years.  Mike and Karen began volunteering to help as well.  In 2008, Dad, Mike, joined KEEN’s Board of Directors. 

“We chose to give back because we saw the difference KEEN made in Joey’s life and in our lives.  The ability to drop him off at KEEN and not have to worry about him and know when you picked him up he was going to be excited and in a good mood. Seeing the difference in our sons’ life made us want to make a difference in the lives of other kids as well.”

And they have!  The Brocato family has contributed hundreds of volunteer hours to KEEN, given significant financial contributions and introduced countless other families and donors to the organization.  When asked about his commitment to KEEN, Mike shared, “I think it comes across in conversations I have with others about the mission of the organization, what it does and the way it delivers services.  That is the power of KEEN.  It inspires a passion in me.  It’s become a part of who I am.”

Corporate Partner Spotlight: Total Wine & More

Strong corporate partnerships are an essential part of many non-profit organizations.  That is certainly true of KEEN Greater DC.

Owner David Trone explains, “We chose to support KEEN for a variety of reasons, but the most important is the country is only as great as how we help those that are most vulnerable.  Making the lives better for children with disabilities, there is nothing more important.”

Total Wine & More’s support over the years has included in-kind donations of wine for the KEENFest reception and dinner, unique and fun bottles of wine for the silent auction, trips to California and Bordeaux France for the live auction, event sponsorship and financial contributions.  Their support of KEEN and our kids has truly been amazing.

The year 2017 has been no different.  As we prepare to celebrate KEEN’s 25th Anniversary at the KEENFest Gala on November 4, 2017, KEEN is proud to share that Total Wine & More will be the Presenting Sponsor of this momentous event. 

“June and I are really excited to be the Presenting Sponsor at the 25th Anniversary KEENFest.  Year after year the organization helps more and more children.  There is no greater reward than the smiles of accomplishment on their faces,” explains David.


Pure Fun and Enjoyment at KEEN

Athlete John began attending KEEN programs when he was 12 years old.  John, now 21 has literally grown up with KEEN.

Mom, Barbara, recently shared her family’s experiences with us.  John struggles with understanding socially appropriate behavior and communication skills. His parents often worried, if they left him somewhere, would he be safe?  “At KEEN, this is a place we knew he was safe.  We could leave him at the program without worrying,” Barbara explained.

“I think it is great that he gets to be around typically developing peers and experience that aspect.  He loves the music and the dancing.  It helps with behaviors too because he can see socially appropriate behaviors from the volunteers.” 

Barbara has also seen KEEN impact the volunteers supporting John and his fellow athletes.  “Because of KEEN, they are able to understand people with autism and different disabilities.”

Over the years, John’s parents and sister have benefited from KEEN as well.  Sister, Elaine, was able to enjoy some dedicated alone time with her mom and dad while John attended KEEN programs.   “It’s also been great in that we were able to meet other parents and families in the same situations,” shared Barbara.  “That is really important because when you are a parent of a child with special needs, you really don’t get to get out and socialize on your own.  We have gone out with parents from KEEN outside of the program.”

Another great benefit of KEEN that Barbara shared, “It is certainly unique in that it is free!  You put special needs behind something and the costs go up.  This is pure fun and enjoyment.  We love KEEN and we think that it is wonderful.”

As John is getting older, his parents, like many others in their situation, are faced with declining servings.  Barbara explains, “We are really happy that he is able to keep going to KEEN, especially since he just turned 21.  It is a really tough time for families because so many of the services drop off.  KEEN is the only thing that keeps going and we are SO happy it does!”

KEEN: A Volunteer Perspective

Laura Partridge has been a KEEN volunteer, almost since the beginning, for nearly 23 years.

Her commitment to KEEN and our kids is amazing.  Laura came to KEEN in 1994 looking for a way to give back.  She was drawn to the fact that it combined exercise and kids and took place on the weekends.  Laura recalls those first sessions, “It was really engaging and I enjoyed it.  After a little while, Elliott asked me to serve on the coaches committee and I said yes.”

And that was only the beginning.  Laura has helped with the sports and music programs in Maryland as well as with the KEENFest and Golf Classic fundraisers.  In 2010, when KEEN expanded into Northern Virginia, Laura was part of the Volunteer leadership that made the programs a success.  Now, eight years later, the programs are thriving and Laura is still at the helm, helping run three sports programs and two music programs.

What is it about KEEN that keeps her coming back?  It turns out, lots of things! 

  1. “I am committed, but I don’t have to worry if I can’t make it.  If there is something that I need to do and I miss KEEN, that is okay.  The flexibility is key.
  2. The enjoyment of seeing the kids and recognizing that, in their own unique ways, they show you this is making a difference to them.  Some communicate it verbally, some just by having a good time, you can tell they enjoy it.
  3. The recognition that I am helping parents.  Giving an adult a break.  Feeling good about what I am doing.   
  4. I love that it is free for them and that we don’t discriminate at all!  All are welcome, regardless of the nature of their disability.
  5. I have met so many nice volunteers over the years.  And there are always new volunteers to meet.”

Laura views KEEN as a welcoming community of support.  “Here are all these people who care. People with disabilities are often discriminated against.  Here is this program and all these volunteers showing that they value each of these people.  There is no money involved, it is just out of the goodness of people’s hearts.”

After just four years of volunteering with KEEN, Laura decided to make a career change.  “I started as a CPA and now am a teacher.  Part of my transition to teaching is based on KEEN.  As I kept volunteering and taking on leadership roles in KEEN, I really looked forward to every session.  Teaching was always in the back of my mind.  In 1998, I ended up going back to school and earning a master’s in education.”

Fast forward to present day, Laura has been teaching for 18 years and loves it.  She can also still be found, twice a month, helping run KEEN programs at the Key Center School in Springfield, VA.

KEEN- In Gordy's Words

Athlete Gordy began attending KEEN programs in Maryland when he was six years old.  He is now 17. 

Gordy recently began communicating via a letterboard and shared these powerful words with us,

“There are so many good things to tell someone about KEEN, but so I don’t droll on and bore you, I'll stick to a few things that changed my life. First, at KEEN you are always treated with respect no matter how different your outsides are. KEEN is a place where differently abled individuals are inspired, empowered and believed to succeed. Everyone has a goal in life, but not everyone gets a chance to accomplish theirs. KEEN makes it their mission to help you achieve your goals.

While I personally am a nonspeaking autistic, members of KEEN are dedicated to my success ensuring I have the tools and training to participate and be included. I am surrounded by people who believe in my intelligence and that alone gives me the confidence in myself to participate in so many of the amazing programs KEEN offers. If I still had never found my voice, KEEN would be my saving grace. The staff trusts me and treats me with dignity.”

For the Love of KEEN

KEEN Mom, Linda Blumenreich, explains her son Brian’s love for KEEN like this, “If I say let’s go bowling, he will say no.  But if I say there is KEEN bowling today, he will say let’s go. Anything that is KEEN, he wants to do.”  In a role reversal, Brian, who recently moved into a group home, now calls his mom to make sure she has marked his KEEN days on her calendar.  “It’s something he always looks forward to.”

Brian, now a young adult, was 10 years old when he first joined KEEN.  He has participated in many KEEN programs over the years.  Brian currently enjoys the Young Adult Sports program and KEEN Bowling.

When asked what has made KEEN a good fit for Brian, Linda shared, “KEEN is unique because of the one-to-one support.  The one constant these many years has been Brian's love for his KEEN coach.  Brian’s challenges have been his anxiety and discomfort in social settings.  His coach engages him and facilitates his interactions with peers, reducing Brian's anxiety in an otherwise stressful situation."

“Brian has never had a bad day at KEEN in his 15 years.  We have seen him grow socially, while exercising (another big need for him).  And we are sure that KEEN has played a big role in giving Brian the tools he needs to live with others independent of us."

In the early years, KEEN also provided Linda and Rich with some much-needed respite.  “When Brian was young, he could not entertain himself for any period of time, and did not have the social skills to play with his peers.  Sleep for him, us, and his younger twin sisters, was in short supply.  I remember many Sundays dropping Brian off at Tilden Middle School and taking a nap in the parking lot confident that Brian was happy and safe with his KEEN coach—happier than at school, at home, or with a baby sitter.” 

Linda and her husband, Rich, have chosen to give back to KEEN both financially and by volunteering their time.  Why do they give?  “We support KEEN in every way we can because we want this next generation of KEEN athletes and their parents to benefit from the KEEN experience the way our family has.”

Volunteer Lela on Growth and Friendship at KEEN

Lela Williams encompasses all that is great about KEEN volunteers- a positive attitude, caring nature, compassion and lots of fun!

Lela began volunteering with KEEN after moving to DC in early 2009.  “I was looking for volunteer opportunities.  I read what KEEN was about and figured I would check it out.  I have a special needs younger brother whose six years younger than me and I knew how hard it was for him to have friends growing up.”

She remembers her first session at Tilden and longtime volunteer Charlie.  “Once I saw how much the kids loved him (Charlie) and how good he was with the kids, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.”  After volunteering about a half dozen more times, Lela was approached by Executive Director, Beata, about helping KEEN expand into Virginia.  “We all went out to dinner, me, Beth and Beata and by the end of it I had agreed to help run the new programs.  Not sure how that happened!?” Lela laughs. 

“We had our first session and the kids came in and it was so much fun! That was seven years ago.  Many of the original kids are still in the program.  So, I had these five-year old’s that are now 12, still coming.  I get to see the different skills they pick up.  They were shy and now they come in saying “Hi Lela!”  I love getting to see how they have grown.”

In her role as a volunteer program coordinator, Lela has witnessed firsthand the many ways KEEN impacts its athletes, families and volunteers.  “I can remember a young boy in the program with behavioral issues.  The first couple of times he acted out physically I told him, “We aren’t doing that.  We are friends.  We don’t hit.”  Ever since then he calls me his buddy.  He comes in and asks, “Will you play with me today?”

She also shared this touching story, “We had a little boy in our program who was seven and his sister was graduating from high school.  When the mom dropped him off, I told her she could leave and that he is fine.  She started crying because she knew her son would be taken care of and safe.  She told me how she could go to the mall with her daughter and look at prom dresses.  KEEN not only served her son, but allowed her to experience that special moment with her daughter as well.”

And, has KEEN had an impact on Lela’s life?  Absolutely!  “When the kids come in and say hi and give me a hug and remember my name…..They are happy to see me and know that I am their friend.  I like being a part of their life in a positive way."

The Nickels: Supporting KEEN for 23 Years

Daryl and Sondra Nickel have been steadfast supporters of KEEN for 23 years.  Their dedication to the organization and its mission has greatly contributed to our success over the last two and half decades.

The Nickels came to learn about KEEN, back in 1994, through their daughter, Kathy.  Kathy, then a sophomore at Holy Cross Academy, volunteered at KEEN.  Daryl remembers, “She loved interacting with KEEN athletes and fellow coaches and soon recruited her classmates and us as volunteers.  We could not say “no” and like Kathy, we fell in love with the organization, its joyful mission and all the wonderful people associated with it.”

Kathy’s early experiences with KEEN would come to influence her life as she got older.  “As parents, we loved the profound impact KEEN had on Kathy.  She continued to volunteer all through high school, worked as a volunteer with adults with disabilities in college and later became a special education teacher,” Daryl explains.

Thinking about KEEN and the growth and changes he has seen over the years, Daryl shares, “Since we first volunteered, KEEN has obviously grown tremendously in terms of the number of athletes and families it serves, the number and variety of programs it offers and its geographic reach.  What makes KEEN so special though has not changed.  KEEN has never wavered from its extraordinary mission of providing free programs for kids with disabilities regardless of the nature or severity of that disability.  Equally important, the passion and dedication of the KEEN organization and its volunteers in fulfilling that mission are as strong as ever.”

In addition to being a fantastic volunteer and supporter, Daryl also introduced Marriott International to KEEN.  “I invited a few Marriott co-workers and some Marriott hotel owners to join Sondra and me at the second annual KEEN Golf Classic 22 years ago.  They loved it and became enamored with KEEN and its mission.  That led to Marriott becoming a major sponsor and to many Marriott associates and hotel owners looking forward, just as we do, to the KEEN Classic every spring.”

And the tradition has continued annually, ever since that first golf tournament.  When asked what it is that keeps Daryl and Sondra coming back after all these years, Daryl says, “We simply love participating in KEEN events and being part of the KEEN family. We cannot imagine ever giving that up.”

Happy at KEEN

Bijan has been a KEEN athlete for nearly 20 years.  KEEN is a significant and important part of his life. 

Mom, Fahimeh, explains, “Emotionally and socially KEEN helps him a lot, to feel good about himself and to feel accepted. He doesn’t think of his disability when he is at KEEN.” 

Bijan can be found enjoying the KEEN young adult sports program, singing at KEENFest, having fun at the annual Sports Festival or at the bowling alley with his fellow athletes. “He is always so happy at KEEN.  It changes his spirit.  He goes from low to high,” shares Fahimeh.

As Bijan became more and more involved with KEEN over the years, so did his family. “I think what happened to Bijan.... Bijan introduced KEEN to us.  Through his experience we got to know KEEN.  When he came home from the program, he was so happy to be there.  I wanted to learn more.  Why does he come back to so happy?  I started to get to know the staff, the other kids that were going.  Then I realized why.  KEEN makes him feel good about himself.  When he is there with everyone else he feels like he has gone to college.  He sees it as a big group.”

Fahimeh, along with Bijan’s two older sisters, have become dedicated KEEN volunteers and fundraisers.  Fahimeh has served on the KEENFest auction committee annually for nearly 10 years.  In fact, most of their family members can be found at this signature KEEN fundraising event!  When asked about her motivations, Fahimeh explained, “I want more people to know about the organization.  Still when you say KEEN, a lot of people don’t know what it is.  I want to build awareness so they can have more programs, in different areas.  If it has helped my child, it can help many others.” 

“When you have a good experience and you see your kid happy, you want others to have that too.  KEEN is something that helped us to get where we are today.”

KEEN Greater DC Board President: Burt Braverman

Not surprisingly, Burt is one of KEEN’s greatest supporters and advocates.  Being involved with the organization for more than two decades has given him a front row seat, witnessing KEEN’s impact on young people with disabilities, their families and the greater community at large.

Looking back, Burt remembers, “I learned about KEEN from my dear friends Larry and Sue Chandler, when their son Jason enrolled as one of the earliest participants in KEEN’s first program nearly 25 years ago.  Sometime later, when I came to appreciate the importance of KEEN to Jason and his family, I volunteered at a session, and then another, and began attending KEEN events.”

In the early 2000’s Burt joined KEEN’s Board of Directors and has served as Board President since 2008. Burt has led the organization through years of tremendous growth and success.  Equally important as that growth is that KEEN “has remained true to the essence of our programs and the spirit of KEEN – pairing a young person with disabilities with a supportive volunteer, and letting them explore together what that child, teen or young adult can accomplish, all in an atmosphere that emphasizes fun, fitness and friendship.”

“The stories that KEEN parents have told me are near and dear to my heart,” Burt explains. “In one instance, a KEEN mom told me how her son – a teenager with autism – asked her to take him to their church so that he could thank God for letting him go to KEEN, and ask that he be able to keep going back to KEEN and all of his friends.  I think of that story often, and it drives me to want to see KEEN programs be available to every child with special needs.”

After all these years and the countless hours Burt spends volunteering for KEEN each week, what is it about the organization that keeps him coming back? “The joy I see on the faces of the kids at our sessions, the hugs they give me, and the wonderful stories I hear from KEEN parents about their kids’ experiences at KEEN – constant reminders of the important role KEEN plays in the lives of the very special young people we serve and their families.”

While Burt plans to take time to enjoy the upcoming celebration of KEEN’s 25th anniversary at the KEEN Fest gala, he’s focused on the future and making KEEN’s great programs available to every special child in our community.

Not Just Community Service: Bullis and KEEN

KEEN Greater DC and the Bullis School have a very special partnership.  As Head of School Dr. Boarman explains, “KEEN's program puts the students front and center. The athletes from KEEN and volunteer coaches from Bullis develop a bond that is clearly evident. KEEN is not just community service to our students--it's deep friendships, and making a genuine difference in the lives of others, person-to-person, day by day.”

Every year since 2013, KEEN Greater DC has had the privilege of being a beneficiary of the Bullis School’s annual Bullis Gives Back Race and Buddy Run/Walk.  KEEN participants, or athletes, are invited to this fun and free event where they are paired with a student buddy for the run/walk followed by a carnival style event with bounce houses, face painting, music, arts and crafts and more.  In addition to all that, the Bullis School donates a portion of the race proceeds to support KEEN programs!

KEEN’s relationship with Bullis deepened further in 2015 when two high school seniors (class of 2016), Carly Morgan and Sabrina Epstein, established a club called “Bullis School for KEEN.”  Members of this club, who submitted written applications and were interviewed as part of the selection process, committed to volunteering with KEEN, twice a month, at Tilden Middle School.  Club members were then paired with KEEN participants, called athletes, to serve as their assigned volunteer coach for one school year. 

“I’ve been involved with KEEN for two years through Bullis’ club,” shared one Bullis School senior, “This year, we have about 20 coaches, which is what we call volunteers. Most of the coaches, including me, have stayed with the same buddies they started volunteering with, so we’ve gotten to know their specific needs and strengths.  I love it so much that I will definitely stay involved after I go to college. KEEN has had a huge impact on me, and the volunteering I do is helping me decide the path I’ll take when I’m in college.”

Out of this fantastic partnership came another great idea.  Carly and Sabrina also spear headed an effort to hold the first ever KEEN Prom in May of 2016 at the Bullis School.  Nearly 100 KEEN athletes attended the event, where they were paired with Bullis student prom buddies for a night of dancing and fun.  The event was a huge success, creating lasting memories for all parties involved.  And, as a result, is now held annually.

“The KEEN Prom is my favorite event of the year at Bullis. The excitement and joy exhibited on the faces of the athletes as their Bullis "date" pins a corsage on their dress or lap and escorts them to the dance floor touches my heart in an indescribable way,” shares Dr. Boarman.

The Stein’s- Lifelong Volunteers

In the early 1990’s Jane Stein was a team leader for Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Mitzvah day, a region-wide day of volunteering. As Jane explains, “I brought a team of volunteers to KEEN and thought, “This is it!””

She came home and told husband, Bob, about her experience and soon the two were regular volunteers.  Jane was one of the first members of KEEN’s volunteer leadership team called the Coaches Committee.  When founder Elliott asked the group for ideas for new programs, Jane, inspired by her husband’s love for swimming, suggested a swim program.  She came home and told Bob, whose immediate reaction was, “We are on.  Let’s do it.” 

After helping start the first KEEN Swim program in Montgomery County the couple also helped when KEEN expanded again, adding swim in DC and even further to Chicago, when a KEEN affiliate was looking to add a swim program there.

The Steins currently spend part of the year in Steamboat Springs, CO.  Inspired by their work at KEEN, the couple sought out similar opportunities in Colorado.  They volunteer for a program serving adults with disabilities and not surprisingly, helped them open their own swim program!  “Without the experience with KEEN, we might never have done that.” Bob reflects.

“For many years, both Jane and I volunteered at the sports program, each of us working one on one with the same athlete.  It was a very meaningful experience- a bonding experience.”

When asked what drew her into KEEN Jane shared, “Many of these athletes might not be accepted in other programs because of some of their disabilities and behaviors.  But there is a place for everyone at KEEN.  That spirit, that is what attracted me.”

And, after all this time, “When we are at KEENFest, we see some of the parents whose kids are now in their 30s or maybe even 40s and there is a bonding of “What is so and so doing?”  They remember all the things we did together.  It is a very nice warm feeling.”

Bob elaborates on the volunteer experience by sharing, “What I find interesting is the number of people who come to KEEN for one weekend and make it a long-time commitment- because of the program, because of the athletes, because of the other volunteers.  It’s almost not fair when you are supposed to be helping others that you get that much satisfaction yourself.” 

For Jane and Bob, “Giving back and helping others is very important to us.”

KEEN Athlete Spotlight:Dale

Dale, our self-proclaimed “KEEN Ambassador” has been a KEEN athlete for more than a decade. Dale is quite social and enjoys sharing his love of KEEN with others.  Throughout the year he can be found participating in our KEEN Club program, on stage (often singing) at our KEENFest fundraising gala, at the KEEN Prom and at various other KEEN events.

Recently, at KEEN’s Sports Festival day Dale shared his feelings with a local reporter.  "I've been coming to KEEN all my life, and I've never seen people come together the way they are here. It's amazing. Truthfully, KEEN for me isn't even about the programs. It's about peacefulness that I bring back home with me. Everyone should have the kind of peace and love I get from KEEN and the volunteers. I love all the volunteers."

He went on to say, "Everything about this day is beautiful.  There is too much violence in the world. What politicians and other important leaders need to learn is that we'd be better off if everyone just loved all people. That's the message of KEEN: love everyone.”

Dale is a member of our KEEN Club program, where teenaged and young adult athletes are paired with typically developing peers to participate in activities over the course of a school year.  In addition to participating in sports-based exercise activities, the group also goes out into the community to do things like apple picking, miniature golf and attend local sporting events.

Mom, Ronnetta, shares, “I can’t say enough about the impact KEEN has made on my son’s life or the beauty in the friendship he has made with his KEEN Club buddy, Sophie. Thank you, KEEN Greater DC, for such an amazing organization and example of truly giving back to the community by including ALL.”

Historic Partnership: Marriott International

The KEEN-Marriott partnership has a long and rich history.  In fact, the relationship began shortly after KEEN’s founding in 1992. 

Former Marriott Executive Daryl Nickel remembers, “I invited a few Marriott co-workers and some Marriott hotel owners to join Sondra and me at the second annual KEEN Golf Classic 22 years ago.  They loved it and became enamored with KEEN and its mission.  That led to Marriott becoming a major sponsor and to many Marriott associates and hotel owners looking forward, just as we do, to the KEEN Classic every spring.”

Fast forward to today and that tradition is still going strong.  Every year since then, Marriott has been a key partner and top sponsor of the Golf Classic.  As a result of Marriott’s continued dedication and support the event has grown in size and success.  So much so, that this year, the event was sold out and had a wait list for spots!

The fundraising success of the golf classic has translated into continued growth and success for KEEN.  With Marriott’s help, the organization has continued on a path of expansion- serving more young people with disabilities in more locations throughout the greater DC area. 

Current Marriott Executive and Golf Co-Chair Liam Brown explains, “The larger philosophy of Marriott is making a difference in the communities where we live and work.  Our involvement with KEEN is a great opportunity for us to support an organization that adds a tremendous amount of value to people’s lives. It’s important for us to be engaged with and support communities in which we do business with.”

Liam, who also serves on KEEN Greater DC’s board of directors, has seen first-hand the impact of KEEN’s work on the community. “Meeting any of the KEEN kids has an emotional impact.  They are the true beneficiaries.  When you volunteer with KEEN you also have the opportunity to meet parents and caretakers who have a tremendous sense of gratitude for everything KEEN offers their children. The ability to help people find meaning and purpose in their life, regardless of what disabilities they might have, gives me, and this company, a great sense of satisfaction in terms of our ability to provide opportunities for all people.”

KEEN is grateful to have found such a remarkable partner in Marriott International.  Through this relationship, hundreds of young people with disabilities have experienced exercise, friendship, and fun; their parents have benefited from much-needed respite, and thousands of community volunteers educated about the needs and abilities of young people with developmental and/or physical challenges.

Liam explains, “KEEN resonates very powerfully with the values of the company, the values of the founder and the founder’s family and the legacy they still have today in various endeavors such as the Bridges Foundation and our partnership with KEEN”