- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2002

Elliott Portnoy graduated with a doctorate in politics from Oxford University. The lessons that touched him most, however, took place not in the classroom, but around the British institution's tennis courts.
It was there that he started Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN), a program that pairs children and young adults with disabilities with volunteers for spirited sessions of play. The informal gatherings teach children basic motor skills as well as the ability to play and interact with others. The lessons in patience and sensitivity the volunteers get are equally valuable, Mr. Portnoy says.
Mr. Portnoy, 36, a Potomac resident and partner in a D.C. law firm, says KEEN got its start when the mother of disabled sisters approached him at Oxford's tennis courts and asked him about involving her girls in some basic play.
"There was no grand plan at all," says Mr. Portnoy, who played tennis with the girls once a week for about a year. "It was the highlight of my time at Oxford."
He discovered, however, that tennis was not the best sport for those with physical disabilities. He and some friends expanded the concept to include basic aerobics and running exercises, then later paddled along the Thames in sculls modified for disabled passengers.
By the time he left England, the group was serving about 600 children. Returning to the United States around 1992, he looked for a program that operated under a similar system. He found none, so he decided to start a branch of KEEN here.
The concept, he says, is simplicity itself.
The program harnesses volunteers "without preconceived notions of the limits of people with disabilities," he says. Mr. Portnoy himself never enrolled in any special education courses. It turned out his instincts and simply spending time with disabled children proved satisfactory.
KEEN athletes suffer from various disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. KEEN sessions, typically held on Sundays, most at Bethesda's Tilden Middle School, let children and adults with disabilities play games, swim and socialize with their peers.
KEEN volunteers are briefed before each session, then paired up with athletes for the afternoon. A file, or athlete profile, is kept on each disabled person for volunteers to read over before meeting the child. The profiles include personality descriptions, favorite sports, specific skills the parents would like to see the child improve upon and any activities that may frighten the child.
The volunteers are a blend of high school students and participants from charitable groups such as D.C. Cares and Single Volunteers of D.C.
"It's taught me a lot about patience and perseverance," says Mr. Portnoy, adding that volunteers echo his reflections. For the more seriously disabled, "it takes a year and a half to teach a very basic skill," he says.
Area parents will need some patience, too, should they want their child to join the KEEN athletes. Currently, about 50 children are on a waiting list to join the program.
On a recent Sunday, about 54 new volunteers showed up to run, play catch and scoot around on tiny carts at Tilden's gymnasium. The sounds of sneakers squeaking on the gymnasium floor combined with the noisy cries of laughter filling the large space. A few parents who opted to stay and watch the proceedings lined the outer ring of the gymnasium.
Participating parents applauded the program for the one-on-one pairings that address each child's specific needs.
Germantown resident Vince Sizer, whose son Brandon, 7, visited for his first time, touched on the uniqueness of KEEN.
"It belongs to them. That's very important," he says of the program. "The more individualized the program, the more you can bring out what's locked within the children."
Volunteer Scott Brunton, 29, of Vienna remembers a young boy named Michael who would scream and cry through the entire session, unable to process the social skills needed. The last time Mr. Brunton saw the boy, he says, the child only sniffled once.
"You see a lot of kids go through a progression," he says.
Jay Shotel, professor and chairman of the department of teacher preparation and special education at George Washington University, says programs such as KEEN help the parents, too.
"Often times, parents are burdened as full-time caregivers," Mr. Shotel says. KEEN allows parents a brief respite from their duties, though many opt to watch their children at play.
"A child with a disability takes more time, effort and energy than a kid that doesn't have a handicap," he says.
The program also reinforces lessons begun by parents from a different perspective.
"It gives the child the opportunity to establish another relationship with someone other than their parent," says Mr. Shotel, resulting in more independent and aware children.
Disabled or not, children tend to take advantage of their parents' good will around the home.
"They know they'll get away with things in the normal environment," he says. With KEEN, "they need to be on their best behavior. That's tremendously valuable.
"We want them in the world at large," he says. "To me, this program is practice for that."
Beata Okulska, the group's executive director, says the program is free for participating families.
"They're already burdened with so many bills," Ms. Okulska says.
Volunteers, Ms. Okulska says, gain the "sensitivity to look at the world from a different perspective and to value things they didn't value before. It's a very special relationship."
Advantages for the athletes include a change of scenery, particularly for those who may lead isolated lives away from their school systems.
"This is a place where they can socialize with their peers and not be judged," she says. "Nobody's afraid of their behavior in some radical or unexplained way. Nobody needs to pretend that they are better, smarter or prettier. People can be who they are and don't worry that they will be laughed at."
Mr. Portnoy hopes the 54 new volunteers come back at some point for future Sunday outings. Even if they do not, he says, an impression has been made.
"Those 54 are now out in the community with a little more sensibility than those who hadn't been with KEEN," he says.
The group will hold its annual silent auction and dinner Thursday at Maggiano's Little Italy in Northwest. Tickets are $45 in advance and $55 at the door. For information, send an e-mail to [email protected]

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