Mike likes
June 5, 2002
Monica P. Wraga
Staff Writer

Stacie D. Marshall/Special to The Gazette

Volunteer coach Mike Frandsen plays Sunday with Annie Coor, 10, of Rockville at the Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (K.E.E.N.) sports festival at Hadley's Park in Potomac. The local nonprofit group offers free sports programs to children and young adults with disabilities.

If you want to catch the eye of basketball star Michael Jordan, provide 10 years of free sports programs to children and adults with disabilities.

Jordan recently gave the Bethesda-based nonprofit group Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (K.E.E.N.) $50,000 so it could keep providing such services. Founded by Potomac resident Elliot Portnoy, the group celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a sports festival Sunday at Hadley's Park in Potomac. Portnoy plans to make the event an annual tradition.

Jordan donated a third of the money 20th Century Fox studios paid him to use his name and likeness in the children's movie "Like Mike," Portnoy said.

"It was unexpected," Portnoy said. "This gives us... an extraordinary contribution that allows us to think about planning new programs."

Jordan selected the group because he is familiar with its work, said Estee Portnoy, Elliot's wife. She works in public relations at SFX Sports in Washington, D.C., which represents Jordan.

"[Jordan] favors charities that involve children and has an especially soft spot for kids with disabilities," she said.

The group offers a variety of free sports and social programs to children and adults ages 5 to 29. The programs often pair one or two volunteers, or "coaches," with a disabled person.

The group offers a Sunday sports program, a program that pairs disabled teens with high school peers for recreational outings, and a program that provides swimming instruction to disabled youth.

"We specialize in serving kids that have been unable to access other programs," Portnoy said. "Very often, we will be the last stop for a family, because... they have not been able to get into or have been secluded from other programs."

Portnoy started volunteering with disabled children in England in 1987 while a student at Oxford University. He began by teaching the children how to play tennis.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1992, Portnoy returned to the Washington, D.C. area and founded K.E.E.N. Since then, more than 4,500 volunteers have helped more than 250 children with disabilities ranging from autism to cerebral palsy and spina bifida.

The group also has a chapter at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Portnoy predicted that in the next 10 years, the group would spread through the Washington, D.C. area and to at least six other cities.

Last weekend's sports festival was a welcome celebration for the group's families, said Susan Hartung of Gaithersburg, a vice president of K.E.E.N.'s board of directors. Two of Hartung's children -- Warren, 17, and Emily, 12 -- have autism and frequently attend the group's programs.

"It's the kind of event, like company picnics or back-to-school picnics, that our families tend to shy away from," Hartung said. "We just can't go, because our kids' behavior is so extreme... Those kind of events are not set up to accommodate their needs."

K.E.E.N. relies on community organizations, grants, and annual fund-raising events.

"I knew I never wanted to be in a position for any child to be turned away because of an inability to pay," Portnoy said.

K.E.E.N.'s coaches, like Stephen Blanks of Bethesda, say the program is just as rewarding for volunteers. Blanks began volunteering while in college in England. Since then, he has continued to volunteer with the group in the United States, and even met his wife at the first K.E.E.N. activity he attended.

"I think to local people, K.E.E.N. provides a great sense of community for individuals," Blanks said. "It provides a good sense of balance and perspective from your day-to-day, rat-race type of jobs. You can very easily and with a minimal commitment provide a very rewarding, valuable experience for children with disabilities in the community."

Jordan supports local nonprofit serving people with disabilities