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KEEN enables fun for kids of all abilities

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Keen athletes pose for a group photo at the swimming pool

Keen athletes pose for a group photo at the swimming pool

KEEN

KEEN

Keen athletes pose for a group photo at the swimming pool

Kasy Vasquez, Website Editor

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The sounds of a zumba playlist filtered through the hum of cars on Temple Street in East Los Angeles. Strewn around the basketball court, building blocks, soccer balls, jump ropes, hula hoops and a piece of parchment paper tacked to a wall stood as children played with them and shot hoops on the court, or followed a volunteer’s instructions for a simplified zumba.

It was by all means a normal play session, except for one thing: I was at a KEEN Los Angeles session at the Children’s Institute. KEEN, or Kids Enjoy Exercise Now, is an organization dedicated to providing quality play time to kids with special needs who would otherwise might not be able to during their normal day.

KEEN Los Angeles
The KEEN Los Angeles logo

We started the day with a volunteer orientation, where we went around the room and introduced ourselves. Executive director Rebecca Polivy and Coach Elliot Roufeh presented a bit about the program’s goals and activities other than the overall sports days, such as their swim and basketball programs. As a final step in preparing us for the day, we were given the profile of the athlete we would be with, which would help us better interact with them.

After we set up the basketball court with the play equipment, the athletes began to arrive, and we began to be paired off. The first ten minutes of the session were dedicated to getting to know the athlete, after which followed some light stretching.

The next hour was devoted to free play. As volunteers, our job was to encourage the kids to stay active and safe during the whole session, actively communicating and playing with them. We were recommended to try to play new things and form group activities with other volunteers.

My athlete and I spent the session alternating between the building blocks, passing a soccer ball back and forth and shooting hoops. Together we built tall castles with both the cardboard blocks and the wood blocks, and she made some goals and baskets.

I felt like I was giving back directly to the same people who helped raise me”

— Evelyn Santiago

My favorite part of the day, however, was the proud circle held at the end of the session. During a proud circle, volunteers and their athletes go around and take turns saying something they accomplished during the day. After each pair says something, everyone around the circle claps. The proud circles are meant to encourage the participants to feel accomplished about their day.

Evelyn Santiago, a Program Development Intern, said joining KEEN back in the fall of 2016 was an honor for her. “After college I moved back to the city and I wanted to get involved in any way with an organization that help children and teens with special needs,” she said. She wanted to share her skills and experiences teaching special education in a primary school setting. “I grew up alongside these families, they were my neighbors, family and friends,” she continued. “I felt like I was giving back directly to the same people who helped raise me”.

KEEN has recently resumed its summer swim sessions, starting on May 6. While I was unable to volunteer at the sessions, Santiago shared with me one of her favorite experiences from the sessions.

“To begin, we just started our Summer Swim program, she said. “Sadly, it was a cold rainy day at an outdoor pool.” Few volunteers had shown up, and one family had gotten lost on the way. She matched the athlete with a volunteer, an action she said “could not have been a better match.”

From the athlete’s family, she learned that they were unable to swim. “I was a bit wary about it, but was amazed at how fast the athlete was picking up basic skills. During my conversation with these parents, the athlete yelled out excitedly and said, ‘Hey mom, look at me!’ The next thing I know both parents are cheering the athlete on, praising the athlete for being in the water and picking up these basic skills.”

She said this experience was meaningful because she was able to witness this very important moment for the family with them, combined with the efforts of both the volunteers and athletes to get to the session on that rainy day.

The next thing I know both parents are cheering the athlete on, praising the athlete for being in the water and picking up these basic skills”

— Evelyn Santiago

KEEN’s program is free of charge to all athletes. However, it still needs money to stay up and running. Beyond grants and donations, the major way KEEN fundraises for their program is their yearly Bowling Bonanza, a one-night bowling party where Team KEEN — a group of KEEN athletes of various abilities — bowls to reach their goal of knocking down 200 bowling pins. Each athlete also tries to reach a goal of $1,000, raised via sponsorships from various donors. Alongside bowling, KEEN also planned for a wandering magician and a silent auction of donated attractions. The Bowling Bonanza is relatively new, replacing the gala.

“What we wanted to accomplish this year with the Bowling Bonanza is to have KEEN athletes involved,” Santiago said. “We wanted to bridge athletes and families with our fundraising efforts.” The Bowling Bonanza allows people attending the event to see what their donations mean to the athletes and the program. “It means having a program where they don’t feel judged by their varying differences in abilities, being able to feel great about themselves, and having fun in a setting that isn’t built to be competitive,” she said.

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KEEN enables fun for kids of all abilities