“My brother was volunteering at the SportsFestival one summer and I tagged along. I ended up having such a blast and the experience made such a valuable impact on my life.” — Hayley Skarupa
Before this year’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, the US women’s hockey team hadn’t won the Olympic gold since the Games in Nagano, in 1998. While that team celebrated from the highest podium 20 years ago, the 2018 US Women’s Olympic team forward Hayley Skarupa was just 4 years old and halfway across the world. It would be later that year that Skarupa herself would take up hockey on the streets of Rockville.
“I was first introduced to hockey when my older brother started playing when I was 4 years old,” Skarupa, a Wootton High School alumna, recalled. “Maryland, of course, wasn’t exactly a hockey hot bed, so we started out playing roller hockey on our neighbor’s driveway with my brothers’ friends. My first three years of playing ice hockey, I was on a boys team because there weren’t that many girls teams out there. The sport has come so far though — not only in the DMV area, but also around the country and world. It is really exciting to see.”
Despite the hard work and time commitment required of a young person to become a world-class athlete, Skarupa still made sure to participate in activities off the ice. What was particularly meaningful for her was volunteering with KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) Greater DC, a nonprofit organization that provides free physical fitness and other recreational activities for young people with developmental and/or physical disabilities. The experience influenced Skarupa so much so that she will be a guest at KEEN’s SportsFestival this year on Sunday, June 3, in Potomac’s Avenel Park.
“I first learned about KEEN when I was in elementary school,” Skarupa, who now lives in Boston, said. “My brother was volunteering at the SportsFestival one summer and I tagged along. I ended up having such a blast and the experience made such a valuable impact on my life. I loved how KEEN encouraged kids with disabilities to exercise and have fun playing sports. I saw how much fun all of the kids were having and knew I wanted to become more involved down the road.”
Now in its 26th year, KEEN holds a number of classes and events throughout the Washington DC metro region and Baltimore area so that young people with special needs — known as KEEN athletes once they become involved — can engage in activities that they likely otherwise wouldn’t be able to pursue. From dance classes to open gym sessions, youths with a range of disabilities can develop their interests and forge relationships while their parents or other devoted caretakers can have time on their own.
“The first part of our mission is to provide free-of-charge recreation and exercise programs for kids with significant disabilities,” KEEN Board Director Burt Braverman said. “We set out to give them opportunities for social interaction, fitness, and fun. It’s important that these be available free of charge because a lot of families we serve have limited economic resources, We also know everything we do needs to be geographically accessible, which drives us to try to expand the number and locations of our programs so that all kids and families interested can get involved.”
The second part of the mission is to enrich the lives of the people who assist the KEEN athletes. These volunteers range from teenagers to adults, like Skarupa, who have stuck with KEEN since they first got involved as teenagers themselves.
“We provide wonderful volunteer opportunities even for people who have not had experience with special needs kids or people with disabilities in general,” Braverman said. “It is life changing, and it gives people the understanding of what people facing these challenges need, and how vital community support is. We’ve changed the direction of peoples’ careers, lives; our volunteers often find direction they didn’t have previously, and, in turn, that helps the third part of our mission — to shape greater community attitudes. People with the right understanding go out into industry, government, and other councils and can directly or indirectly alter public policy to make the community more supportive.”
KEEN began in Montgomery County, but has expanded to execute programs in 19 different locations throughout Maryland, Virginia and DC proper. SportsFestival is critical to KEEN’s growth trajectory because it is the one annual initiative that brings everyone together for food, fun, and fellowship. This year, everyone at SportsFestival will also have the opportunity to meet with an Olympic gold medalist.
“It’s a small world,” Braverman said. “Haley volunteered at one of our major events back when she was in high school. And Haley is also very tied to her Maryland roots. You’ll see pictures of her at the Olympics with a Maryland flag in the background, so we were able to arrange for her to come back home for SportsFestival, which is one of our major events of the year, when kids from more than 30 programs come together at Avenel Park. It’s a great, festive environment, perfect for a shared experience and lots of fun.”
The beauty of SportsFestival is that it allows everyone there to unwind, to spend the time however they so desire. There are field games, face painters, free pizza, and so much more. Even Skarupa is there primarily to bask in the company of the athletes and volunteers.
“I am most looking forward to meeting such amazing athletes and people at SportsFestival and being able to engage in sports and exercise with them,” Skarupa said. “I’ll be signing autographs, taking pictures, and doing a meet-and-greet with the athletes and their families. I’ll mostly be there to hang out with all of the participants. I’m excited to share my experiences while also learning more about the athletes and volunteers.”
Skarupa played in all five games that led to gold in the Winter Olympics this year, and currently plays forward for the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) team, Boston Pride. If there’s anyone who knows how important fitness is, it would be Skarupa.
“Sports have always played such a big role in my childhood and life,” Skarupa said. “Growing up, I played pretty much every single sport and loved the competitive nature and team camaraderie of playing on a team. I learned a lot of lessons about myself as an athlete, but more importantly, as a person as well. Sports have taught me how to work with others, how to deal with adversity and how to challenge yourself beyond your limits. I cannot give enough credit to sports.”
Her favorite moments of her professional career haven’t changed much from those of her youth league hockey days, which could be a poignant lesson for any young KEEN athlete or volunteer who listens to her words of wisdom.
“Based on what I have experienced, my advice for KEEN athletes and volunteers would be to enjoy every moment,” she said. “Regardless of the challenge or adversity, embrace the moments with your team, family and friends, because that is what you will look back on and remember the most. I love looking back on and laughing about all the little stories from the locker room, traveling in airports, on a bus, early mornings, late nights, and even from all of the hard work in between. Be present and enjoy it, because they are the most important. The rest will take care of itself.”
To learn more about KEEN, including SportsFestival — an event open to anyone interested — visit www.keengreaterdc.org.