Portnoy blends family, work and volunteering at KEEN foundation
Sep. 15, 2004
Peggy Vaughn
Staff Writer

Photo by Susan Whiney

Volunteer Estee Portnoy displays a few items to be auctioned on Oct. 19 at KEENFest 2004, a dinner and silent/auction she co-chairs for KEEN, or Kids Enjoy Exercise Now.

Four years ago, Estee Portnoy e-mailed her Clagett Farm neighbors in Potomac and asked for their help in coordinating KEENFest, a silent auction and dinner for KEEN, the nonprofit foundation that provides free sports and recreation programs for disabled children and young adults.

A handful of neighbors showed up, along with 10 children willing to stuff invitation envelopes for the event.

"Now it's an annual thing, with everyone looking forward to bringing the kids and helping out," Portnoy said. "It was chaos this past week, with 26 kids and 22 neighbors here to stuff envelopes for KEENFest 2004."

Portnoy, 37, is experienced at managing chaos.

The mother of three children and a vice president at SFX Sports Group, a sports marketing agency in Chevy Chase, she said the key is to blend, not balance, the demands on her time.

"People talk about finding a balance in their work and personal life, but that says to me that something is going to get [shortchanged]," she said. "Instead, I try to blend my work, home and volunteer [commitments]."

And blend, she does, by recruiting neighbors to work as volunteers for a charity event that auctions sports memorabilia she collects through her work contacts.

"My neighbors feel blessed, as I do, and want to contribute to others," she said. "I come from a humble background, a steel town in western Pennsylvania. But my immigrant parents hammered into me the importance of giving back to the community."

Portnoy said people often ask what motivates her to work with disabled children.

"I simply bonded with the kids and their parents," she said. "How could you not, when [disabled children are] some of the most affectionate people around?"

Her neighbors agree that Portnoy's enthusiasm for volunteering is contagious.

"She puts her heart into it," said neighbor and KEEN volunteer Paula Goldsmith. "She truly believes in kids with special needs. We all want to help out."

Portnoy's business contacts are equally supportive.

As business manager for basketball legend Michael Jordan, Portnoy invariably auctions one of his jerseys, as well as other highly prized items donated by sports stars Mia Hamm, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter and Freddy Adu.

The event raised $77,000 last year. Along with a golf tournament held in the spring, it is the foundation's primary fund-raiser.

That the auction she is co-chairwoman with friend Sheila Sankaran of Rockville funds a charity founded by her husband Elliott makes it all the sweeter.

Elliot Portnoy established KEEN while studying in England as a Rhodes Scholar in 1989.

In 1992, shortly after the Portnoys moved to Bethesda, they decided to get involved in volunteering. Montgomery County officials heard about the KEEN program in England, and asked them to start a similar program here.

"The two of us were just starting our careers and it was six weeks before our wedding, so I said it was kind of nuts. But we're both type A personalities, and it felt so good and right," she said.

The program began with 12 disabled children working one-on-one with volunteers at a gym in Rockville.

"Our volunteers receive orientation, but they don't come in with preconceptions about what the kids can or can't do," she said. "Parents tell us that's the beauty of the program."

Parents also appreciate other aspects of the program, said neighbor and volunteer Joy Stein.

"Parents use KEEN as affordable respite care, and that's something that's difficult to find," Stein said. "It gives them a break for an hour or so and their kid is having a good time."

Today, the program has served more than 300 children and young adults with profound disabilities, such as autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome and other disabilities. It runs year-round, on every other Sunday, at Tilden Middle School in Bethesda. For over an hour, the "athletes" play basketball, jump rope and enjoy other activities with their volunteer "coaches."

"We take the kids that can't get into other programs, like Special Olympics," Portnoy said. "Some feel like they're Michael Jordan, while others are just learning to hold a ball. They all have a place with us."

KEEN also runs three programs for young adults, including bowling in Gaithersburg and a fitness class in a Washington, D.C., gym.

"We started working with kids, but in 13 years, some entered their 20s and we had to develop new programs," Portnoy said.

KEEN will expand nationally over the next few years, with affiliates in Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

Portnoy initially taught aerobics to the young athletes, but today focuses primarily on fund-raising for the program.

"When my kids are older and can volunteer, I'll get back to working hands-on with the kids," she said. "But I love to organize events, and this is where I'm needed now."