KEEN Sports Festival 2012/  Photo source: Bethesda Magazine

KEEN Sports Festival 2012/Photo source: Bethesda Magazine

A Keen Solution


When most of us think about childhood obesity, we think of someone making unhealthy food choices, but that’s not always the case.  

Children with disabilities face a greater risk of obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More often than not, the reason goes beyond portion sizes.

Because many kids with special needs have a difficult time chewing and swallowing, they’re advised to stick with soft foods, but softer foods tend to be more processed, and it’s no secret that processed foods are often less nutritious. Limited mobility and certain medications that cause weight gain can play a significant role as well.

The nonprofit organization Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (USA is doing something to combat obesity among disabled children. For nearly 30 years, KEEN has been working to empower youth with disabilities through “free, non-competitive, one-to-one programs of exercise, fitness and fun,” according to its website. At KEEN, the kids are “athletes” and the volunteers are “coaches.”

“What we do at KEEN is really simple,” said Executive Director Kate Hurson. “We pair a young person with a disability, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability, with a volunteer coach and we let the two of them figure out what it is they want to do and that’s where the magic happens. That interaction between the volunteer and the athlete is crucial.”

Although KEEN has programs established in seven cities across the U.S., the organization’s roots actually stem from Oxford, England. A parent of a young woman with a disability approached KEEN Founder Elliott Portnoy, who played tennis while studying abroad, about providing tennis coaching sessions to her daughter. Portnoy had never worked with a disabled person prior to the woman’s request, but he accepted the challenge.

“Elliott got together with some other people who also wanted to volunteer, and they discussed doing more gymnasium type of activities, such as basketball and soccer,” Hurson said. “That’s essentially how KEEN got started.”

Sports, one of KEEN’s core programs, takes place in a gymnasium and the athletes have a variety of activities to choose from at each session. Unlike many programs geared toward youth with disabilities, the coaches at KEEN work to ensure that the activity caters to the athlete’s needs.

“Some of our kids can’t wait to get here and they know exactly what it is they want to do, and they may just want to shoot basketballs,” Hurson said. “Some kids may need the volunteer to give them suggestions and try different things. Others may just want to run around the entire time. We meet the athlete where they are.”

KEEN also offers swimming, bowling, tae kwon do and yoga. To ensure these types of programs continue to exist for thousands of kids, the organization hosts several fundraising events throughout the year, one of them being KEEN for Coffee. It’s exactly what it sounds like: People get together over coffee, tea and cake and collect donations to support KEEN’s programs. It can be held anywhere by anyone and the person hosting the event can receive prizes depending on the amount of money raised.

“People have coffee every day anyway, but with this, they can get together with friends and have a jar sitting around. There’s no such thing as a bad KEEN for Coffee. You could raise $5 and that’s a successful coffee,” Hurson said. “It’s a way for everyone to get involved and we’re looking for it to grow significantly in the coming years.”

Last year, KEEN held its first symposium that shed some much-need light on the issues surrounding the link between obesity and disabled children. KEEN coach Steve Ettinger, who’s been volunteering for more than six years, served as the event’s keynote speaker.

As a kids’ fitness expert, speaker and author of the award-winning children’s book, “Wallie Exercises” (Active Spud Press), Ettinger sees his volunteer work at KEEN as a natural fit.

“It’s vital that special needs kids have the opportunity to move and be active," he said. "KEEN does such a fantastic job with that.”

While sports remain the heart of the organization, there’s so much more to be gained at KEEN. Athletes learn valuable social skills, build confidence, and leave every session with a greater sense of belonging.

“When you hear the parents talk about the difference KEEN has made in their family’s lives and how they found acceptance after being turned away from so many other programs, it’s heart warming,” Hurson said. “KEEN is a safe place where kids with disabilities are welcomed and embraced to the fullest.”

KEEN Greater DC celebrates 23 years with a sports festival/  Photo source: Potomac Patch

KEEN Greater DC celebrates 23 years with a sports festival/Photo source: Potomac Patch

About the Author: Princess Gabbara is a Michigan-based journalist whose work has appeared on,,, Huffington Post Women, Sesi Magazine and many others. You can read more of her work on her blog. She also tweets @PrincessGabbara.