The bond between some KEEN volunteers goes beyond their time giving back to the community.
By Jane Hess Collins
Lesley Strauss wanted to make new friends. It was 1997, she’d graduated from Vanderbilt the year before, and she loved working for Senator Robert Byrd on the Hill. But, it was time to expand her circle. Then she discovered KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) one Saturday afternoon.
KEEN, a Catalogue for Philanthropy-approved nonprofit, provides recreational opportunities for children and young adults with developmental and physical disabilities at no cost to their families and caregivers. Lesley loved kids, loved athletics and had volunteered with Special Olympics. She knew she’d found her match.
But, she had no idea what kind of match she was about to make. At the same time, Mike McNamara had just completed his Harvard law degree and was starting his Washington legal career, and wanted to meet young professionals who shared his interest in community service. Since his colleague, Elliott Portnoy, had founded KEEN in England and had started up the program in the District, McNamara accompanied him to KEEN’s site at Tilden Middle School that same Sunday afternoon.
When he saw Lesley in the school gym, McNamara found an excuse to maneuver himself and his student athlete toward her. Who made the first move? Lesley spoke first. McNamara agreed, joking, “she mercilessly chased me.”
After a few letters and phone calls (remember, this is almost pre-internet), McNamara asked Lesley if she’d volunteer with KEEN again. Yes, she was, and she took her best friend with her the second time for a little recon and support. When Mike suddenly remembered that he needed new running shoes as Lesley and her friend went to the nearby mall after the KEEN event, she knew Mike was there to stay.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Thirteen years and two really cute tow-headed children later, Lesley and Mike McNamara, married in 2000, continue their commitment to KEEN.
“KEEN’s been part of our life,” said Lesley, who’s co-chairing the KEENFest fundraiser on November 5 at the French Embassy. “Each year that I recommit to KEENFest there’s something that pulls at my heartstrings because that’s how we met.”
There must be something in the KEEN water. Beata Okulska, KEEN’s Executive Director, named four other couples who met and married through volunteering with her organization. And she’s especially excited about the “future KEEN volunteers” since several of the couples, like Lesley and Mike, are now parents and plan to include their children in their KEEN involvement.
So is KEEN the new bar scene? Okulska credits KEEN’s matchmaking success to the unique challenges of its mission. “Working with kids with disabilities is a very unique experience,” she said. “They have to really enjoy working and playing with KEEN kids. So I think that it’s that unusual interest [in working with severely handicapped children] that brings people together.”
Lesley and Mike think that volunteering is a testament to a person’s character. While she wasn’t looking love back in 1997, Lesley found Mike’s volunteer commitment appealing, and they both share their “how we met” story at KEEN fundraisers. Still smitten, Mike agreed, saying, “Lesley is a very caring and giving person. The fact that she still gives this much time remains a very alluring part of her personality, just as it was back when we first met. I was attracted to her in lots of ways but the fact that she was giving and caring about this clearly is part of who she is and what attracted me to Lesley.”
Mike, now a managing partner at the law firm SNR Denton where Portnoy is now chief executive, acknowledged that while KEEN volunteers want to do good, the social network they create is what brings them back. “That’s where people get bitten by the bug of giving and that’s where people find what works for them,” he said. “You find passion. You find reward. We found reward in working with these amazing kids but we also found reward in the atmosphere of the organization of young professionals and families who were able to get together.”
And what advice do Lesley and Mike have for others looking for love? “You’ve got to volunteer,” Lesley advises young professional women who are looking for love online. “Find a [volunteer] organization that works for you and meets your needs and what you’re looking for and use it as an opportunity. Maybe you’ll meet someone of a like mind or who is of interest to you.”
And maybe KEEN will take credit for marriage number six.
Jane Hess Collins is retired former Air Force colonel who writes to inspire people to contribute. She is also a public speaker, conducts workshops which match clients’ values with service opportunities, and has established game nights for at-risk families throughout the country. You can contact her at www.getoutandgiveback.com.