Program at Tilden Middle in Rockville helps students jump into exercise
KEEN breaks down barriers between disabled children and teens
Chris Rossi/The Gazette
Noise echoes through the gym at Tilden Middle School in Rockville two Sundays a month as young, disabled athletes and volunteer coaches play together through the Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN) program.
KEEN is a recreation and socialization program for children with severe mental and physical disabilities. It provides more than 100 children with activities not usually open to disabled children.
The athletes were paired with an equal number of coaches to play any of a number of games March 15, mostly physical activities.
"Our kids don't have a concept of competing. Most cannot follow rules of a game. That is why it is so important to have one-on-one [coaching]," Beata Okulska, executive director of KEEN of Greater DC, said.
The program could not function without the help of volunteers and that is where many county high school students step in to be coaches, Okulska said.
Patrick Townsend, 17, of Silver Spring, a junior at Good Counsel High School in Olney, has been a KEEN volunteer for more than a year.
"I enjoy working with these kids," Townsend said as he tossed a ball to Giovanni Rossignoli, 7, of Germantown. "You come and get a profile of the child and read it to see what you can do."
Giovanni loves to hold a baseball bat so his parents want him to get into baseball, Townsend said as he tossed another ball, encouraging Giovanni to swing his bat.
As baseballs, basketballs and footballs — all soft versions of the real thing — flew about the gym, tricycles and scooters rolled by, most with athletes being pushed or pulled by their coaches. Sometimes, the roles were reversed and the athlete wanted to be in charge so he or she pulled a coach around, not always staying out of the way of another group.
In another area of the gym, several coaches and athletes held the edges of a colorful nylon parachute, waving it up and down while other coaches and athletes sat underneath.
Joe Donahue, of Vienna, Va., was volunteering for the first time with a group of Notre Dame University alumni. He was paired with Spencer Conley, 8, of Silver Spring.
After sitting under the parachute and then helping to wave it up and down, Spencer took advantage of a break in the game to sit on top of it. That changed the game completely, but no one seemed to mind.
"This is beneficial to him because he gets to interact," his mother, Susan Conley, said. "One of the challenges of [autism] is socialization, and he gets to run around a lot. There are not a lot of physical exercise programs [for him]."
As Conley and her husband, Tobin, watched, all the athletes and coaches gathered in a circle to finish the 90-minute program by acknowledging the accomplishments of each athlete.
Most of the athletes are not verbal enough to answer for themselves so the coaches did the talking. That did not diminish the smile on each athlete's face when the whole group clapped just for him or her.
"They like to be clapped for and like to clap for people. They like to be recognized," said Charlie Gilbert, a volunteer in charge of the sports program at Tilden.
When the first session of the day ended, another group of athletes arrived, some going to the gym and others going to a classroom for music.
Michelle Famulare, 16, of Darnestown, a junior at Connelly School of the Holy Child High School in Potomac, sat in the music room with Eric Dirksen, 14, of Silver Spring, as the group sang about two little frogs, doing hand motions to go with the song.
"I like to see how excited the kids get and that they get to do what they want," she said as Eric walked to the front of the room to take a turn leading the song.
Famulare has been with the program for a year.
"I definitely want to continue. This is great, they have so much fun," she said.
KEEN volunteers also benefit, Okulska said.
"The impact KEEN has on teenagers is unbelievable," she said. "Some students never know a person with disabilities. KEEN breaks the barriers."
Rosemarie McGinty, 15, of Darnestown, a sophomore at the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington appreciates the experience.
"I learn something new every week," McGinty said. "You can't always communicate with them so that makes it a challenge [but] it's always a good experience."