Local Heroes – Keen London

Staffed almost entirely by volunteers, Keen London provides free sports and recreational activities for children with special needs.

Wandering in to Keen’s North London base on a sunny Sunday afternoon, everything feels relaxed and under control. Some of the children at the Keen session are cycling, accompanied by a volunteer ‘coach’, on tandems, others zip around the large playground on scooters.

Inside the sports hall, one girl scores a strike against multi-coloured plastic skittles, while a young boy investigates the sensory corner in the company of two adults.

Everything seems so calm that it would be easy to miss the fact that the service which Keen is providing is both important, and scarce: they are the only organisation in London offering free sports activities for children with special needs, whilst guaranteeing that each child will have one-to-one attention from an adult while they are there. This level of provision – one-to-one is the minimum, some children require two-to-one care, which can also be provided – is vital, as Jill Robinson, one of Keen’s trustees, explains. “Many of the children are excluded from sports at school because their needs can’t be accommodated, so Keen is their only chance to participate in this kind of activity. Being able to provide a high ratio of adults to children means that we never have to turn anyone away.”

Keen is happy to accept children with any form of special need, and it achieves this level of inclusion by maintaining a pool of several hundred volunteers – known as ‘coaches’ these volunteers, mainly students, are managed by Keen’s only paid employee, charity co-ordinator, Scott McDonald, who ensures that there will always be as much help as necessary at each session. “I used to work organising mainstream sports activities,” says Scott, “but this is so much more rewarding.”

Sessions are run at the Tufnell Park site – which is hired from Ackland Burghley school – on Sunday mornings and afternoons, and the volunteers, who all receive training from the charity, are free to give as much or as little of their time as they are able.

“Some charities require a minimum time commitment from volunteers,” says Jill, “but we don’t do that – which makes it easier to fit volunteering for Keen in around other commitments.”

Many of the volunteers do, in fact, find time to come most weeks – and they are overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “You might think I’m here to work,” says Daniel, who’s been volunteering at Keen for several years, “but actually I just want to run around and jump on the trampoline!” Daniel laughs, but it’s a sentiment that’s echoed again and again by the volunteers – that they’re enjoying themselves just as much as the children they’re here to help. And it’s not just the fun element of working at Keen that keeps people coming back, and ensures the charity’s high rate of volunteer retention, it’s also the sense of satisfaction that the volunteers gain from the work. “I come away from each session with an amazing feeling of warmth,” says Amira, another Keen coach, “seeing the children change – for example watching a child who hasn’t been communicating open up – is incredibly satisfying.” Long term volunteer, Kaush, agrees. “The first time you get a kid to join in, or even just smile, is the most incredible feeling.”

Children can start at Keen from the age of five, and they grow up with the organisation. As well as taking part in activities on the Keen site, participants are taken on trips, where they have the opportunity to sample activities such as ice-skating, bowling and swimming. In the summer there is even an annual two-day residential break – which for many children will be the first time that they’ve spent a night away from home. The sessions – on and off site – not only provide the children with opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have, but also give parents a valuable break; and with such a high ratio of trained volunteers at every session, parents can rest assured that they’re leaving their children in a safe and caring environment. Siblings are welcome to come along to sessions – whether they have special needs or not – which means that they get to enjoy everything that Keen has to offer with their brother or sister, and that their parents can have a couple of hours of valuable child-free time.

Keen is very popular, and children come from as far away as Dagenham to attend the sessions in Tufnell Park. To meet demand, they are about to open a new centre in Hackney, and are currently fundraising to make the £45,000 that they will need to cover the start-up and first year’s running costs. Keen receives grants from trust-giving bodies, but also relies on public donations – and Jill points out that any contributions they receive will go directly to the place that they’re needed, “with just one paid employee, and everyone else giving up their time for free, we manage to keep overheads very low. All the money goes into activities for the children.”

As a relatively small organisation, Keen not only manages to keep administrative costs down, but also to maintain a family atmosphere – while sessions are running the ambiance is relaxed, good-natured and fun; and, though it’s outside the remit of his job, Scott goes an extra mile to pair up parents’ childcare needs outside of sessions with available coaches – something which benefits parents, children, and coaches – who are eager to be involved in the lives of the children – alike. Kaush sums up the Keen spirit, “London is a huge city, but at Keen I’ve found a supportive community of parents, children, and other volunteers. It keeps me grounded.”

 To donate: www.bmycharity.com/charities/keenlondon