Brian Blumenreich has been a KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) athlete for five years, so he’s done a lot during that time, but meeting Washington Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig took the cake.
“Look, he signed my shirt,” said Blumenreich as he held up the gray shirt with Kolzig’s signature scrawled across the shoulder. As big of a day as it was for Blumenreich, it was a bigger day for KEEN, which on Sunday, June 3 celebrated its fifteenth year of providing free swimming, tennis, bowling, fitness, and music programs to children and young adults with disabilities ranging from autism to cerebral palsy and spinal bifida.
Kolzig was the special guest at Sunday’s event at Hadley’s Park that featured a moonbounce, an obstacle course, a giant tug-of-war, and cake. More than 200 people attended despite a soft drizzle that fell all day.
“It fills a void,” said Maddy Rudd, whose son Richard has been involved with KEEN since its second session fifteen years ago. “There are never enough organizations to deal with a population that is often overlooked. It’s badly needed.”
KEEN pairs volunteer coaches with athletes with disabilities, and the coaches help the athletes participate in sports activities. The volunteers are typically young professionals who have little to no experience with those with developmental disabilities, said KEEN founder Elliot Portnoy. The result is that the volunteers learn how to interact with the athletes and learn about a population of people that they might normally keep at a distance, Portnoy said.
The dedication of the volunteers is key, Rudd said, even in cases where they don’t get much of a response from the athletes that they work with. Her son Richard is difficult to engage and has no language skills, offering little to no feedback to his coaches, Maddy Rudd said. Still, week after week, year after year, volunteers work with him. “That’s what’s so wonderful about the volunteers,” Maddy Rudd said.
“IT WAS KIND of a fluke,” said Portnoy of how he started KEEN. While a student and tennis player at Oxford University in England, he became involved in a similar program teaching tennis to children with autism. Something clicked, and when he returned to Washington, D.C. he founded KEEN. The program has now spread throughout the U.S. to Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and in the next year Portnoy said that he expects KEEN programs to start in Phoenix and New York City.
“I never had a grand plan, we just go where the need is,” Portnoy said.
What differentiates KEEN from other similar organizations is that the activities are completely free and the athletics are non-competitive, said Rich Blumenreich, Brian Blumenreich’s father and the Vice President of KEEN.
“They just enjoy the exercise and the social environment and they really thrive,” said Beata Okulska, KEEN's Executive Director.
KEEN’s mission is particularly poignant to Kolzig, whose 6-year-old son Carson has autism.
“It definitely has a personal connection,” Kolzig said. Kolzig helped to found Athletes Against Autism, a branch of the Cure Autism Now organization.
Portnoy said that the key to the organization’s success has been the volunteers.
“If you have great volunteers,” Portnoy said, “there’s really no limits to what you can do.”