I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to Nicole Curtin, Head of Services at KEEN London, to find out more about this small but mighty charity.
KEEN London provides one-to-one support at sports and activity sessions for children with additional needs or disabilities. With a mission of improving physical activity, social interaction and quality of life for children with disabilities in the London area, they provide weekly sessions and residential trips to differently-abled athletes free of charge.
Having started volunteering with KEEN London 10 years ago when the charity was still tiny, and then becoming only the second member of staff in 2013, Nicole has witnessed the remarkable growth of an organisation which now provides over 6,000 hours of supported care to children with additional needs across London.
It is clear from speaking to Nicole that she is passionate about the role KEEN London plays in the community. As a small charity she says that she can still get to know all the families with whom they work:
“When I share stories of the children with others, I am not just telling their story, I am telling my story too because I have worked with these children for a long time”
How did KEEN London begin?
The origins of KEEN London are not entirely certain. When Nicole and some other members of the team were tidying the office a few years ago, they found old notes from the first meeting held by the trustees of KEEN London suggesting that it began 18 years ago.
The KEEN idea started in Oxford by a student who recognised the need for differently-abled children to have access to sport. KEEN actually stands for ‘kids enjoying exercise now’ and that must have been that student’s goal. Some students graduated and ended up in London and thought it would be good to bring the same idea to London. Some of these students moved to the states where there is KEEN New York, San Francisco and more.
Nicole explained to me the core values that underpin the KEEN London family.
KEEN London is:
- inclusive: believing that no child should miss out on the benefits of sports and physical activity
- compassionate and supportive: being kind and providing individual support drives all of the programmes and work
- committed to high standards: KEEN London are professionals and experts in their field.
- trustworthy: working hard to ensure parents and carers can confidently leave their children
- respectful: respecting the rights, feelings and standards of all athletes, parents, volunteers and funders
- accountable: rigorous in ensuring every pound raised for KEEN London is spent on delivering the maximum benefit to the athletes.
- fun: smiles and laughter are their most valued outcomes.
What happens at KEEN?
Every KEEN London session is packed with sports, fun and games, giving children with additional needs the chance to take part, make friends, learn new skills and have as much fun as possible. A typical session will include playground games, basketball, football, dancing, and a traditional rendition of the hokey-cokey. They also arrange regular trips including ice-skating, city farm visits, boating and trips to London landmarks.
Every attending athlete is paired with a trained volunteer coach for individual support. This means each athlete can enjoy all the activities to the best of his or her abilities and parents can enjoy valuable respite time knowing that their child is being cared for in a safe and supported environment.
KEEN London is aimed at primary school aged children who come for a two-year program with clear developmental goals which focus on the physical and social wellbeing of each child. Allowing children to graduate after two years has been a recent development for the charity. Prior to this the program had no end point but this change has provided more focus on development and allowed a larger number of children to access the activities.
“Week by week, we can see improvements in our athletes’ self-esteem, confidence, physical ability, teamwork and communication skills.”
All of the sessions are free of charge. They take place during term-time on Saturdays in Dalston, East London, Vauxhall, South London (with the third site currently changing location in the North of London).
Twice a year, KEEN London athletes venture out from London for a short residential trip to the countryside, and some of the favourite locations include Kingswood Centre in Kent and the Isle of Wight.
While they are away, they enjoy many new adventures including boating, orienteering, climbing, archery, building campfires and making the most of their time in the countryside or at the coast.
For many of the athletes, this is their first experience of staying away from home and allows children to build confidence and try new things:
“The residentials are the most exhausting and intense weekends, climbing over, through, and under anything and everything! We come back sleep deprived and aching but everyone has the most fun.
I love seeing the children (and volunteers for that matter!) pluck up courage to do things for the first time. The children really develop in such a short space of time. It is a real bonding experience to see the children in a completely different environment, away from home, you really see their personalities come out.”
How can we get involved with KEEN London?
Because KEEN sessions are free of charge, the charity relies on the generosity of donors and sponsors.
“There is a long waiting list of children who could benefit enormously from the activities at KEEN London and it would be great to be able to provide one-to-one supported sports and activities to as many children in London as possible.”
Nicole shared with me some of the crazier fundraising ideas that have taken place over the last few years including ultra-marathons; running a marathon on every continent; but I think my favourite was the sound of eight people riding a single tandem!
The Hackney Half Marathon is also a regular feature on the KEEN London fundraising landscape and I loved hearing about the team’s efforts to get the children involved too. Last year, during the weekly sessions, the children would run laps of the hall. Then when lockdown struck, they would do laps of their homes. And finally, for the last hurdle, they did a lap of the park until they had made up the distance of a half marathon! This year with the Hackney Half back on KEEN London brought the first team of young people with additional needs to take part, they smashed it and left the volunteers for dust!
“Because of our size, we can keep our overheads as low as possible and ensure that every pound donated to KEEN is spent on improving the lives of the children we support.”
It takes many volunteer coaches to maintain the level of support provided at KEEN sessions. To become a volunteer, Nicole insists that you don’t need any previous experience or sporting ability, just the enthusiasm to get involved.
KEEN London would love to welcome any new volunteers to provide one-to-one support for the amazing athletes. After attending an induction to learn about working with children with additional needs, child safeguarding and behaviour management, coaches are asked to commit to attending at least two sessions a month for a minimum of six months, but there is no maximum limit! Volunteers come from all walks of life. They may be bankers during the week or studying for A-levels. They may be 16 years old or 100 years old. All they have to be able to do is keep up with a small child!
Nicole talks really fondly about her time as a volunteer and the incredible role volunteers play in the children’s lives:
“We see volunteering at KEEN London as a unique opportunity to build relationships with some really amazing children.
We expect a lot from our volunteers, they are not allowed to watch activities, they have to participate! The athletes may have a lot of professional adults in their lives such as therapists and carers and it is really important to us that the volunteers do NOT fill the same role. Volunteers are not carers - they are dependable playmates and one thing I love about watching new adult volunteers is seeing them learn how to play too!”
The future of KEEN London
“Looking to the future I hope to see KEEN London continue to grow and reach even more families across the city and our recent change of allowing children to graduate after two years should mean that we can support way more athletes along the way!”
Since our interview Nicole has moved on from her adventures at KEEN London, but says she is coming back for all the parties!