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Caltech Student Contributes to Empower Youth With Disabilities Through Exercise

Thanks to the Caltech Y Advocating for Change Together (ACT) Award, I lived in San Francisco and volunteered with the Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN) organization. This program focuses on community-based programs to engage children with special needs in exercise.

I had previous experience working with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and running my own tennis clinic with ACEing Autism in Spring 2022 on the Caltech campus. Through my experience with KEEN, I hoped to gain further insight into two key areas: the unique exercise opportunities that could be provided in a densely populated urban environment and how the pediatric disability space can vary and extend beyond my knowledge of ASD.

The first thing I learned was from my personal experience trying to find a way to keep playing tennis while in San Francisco. There are many city resources available for exercise, from large parks to publicly available tennis courts that can be booked online. However, it was incredibly difficult to reserve these courts in the northern areas of San Francisco, which were also the densest parts of the city. I also noticed there are fewer courts where many of the Black and Hispanic residents live. Though I considered running an ACEing Autism tennis clinic with KEEN during my time in San Francisco, I saw that the limited court availability and distance to these courts from underserved populations would restrict the impact and outreach of the clinic.


"I had an amazing experience, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to explore an area of activism I will continue to engage with."


I engaged fruitfully in the online programming provided by KEEN. Two notable programs were KEEN Zoom-ba and KEEN Teen Thursday. The Zumba class was taught by Coach Shana, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome. She led the class all on her own, with other coaches on standby to help maintain structure and engagement. The class was two-dimensional, with both a dance routine and social engagement of the participants. We started each session with a fun fact icebreaker, where the kids and coaches would share a fun fact about themselves. The directors knew each participant by name, and from my first online session, it was clear that KEEN valued creating a close, tight-knit community.


KEEN Teen Thursday was another interesting online program that focused less on exercise but was heavily interactive. In this program, I met different children from those in the Zumba sessions, with disabilities ranging from a general learning disability to cerebral palsy. The coaches played a larger role in these calls to prepare questions and encourage conversation among the kids. Though virtual events have a stigma of being less engaging, Teen Thursdays were able to reach an increased number of teens across the community through its virtual platform, and active facilitation by the coaches kept the kids focused and participating in the conversation.


I also had the opportunity to volunteer for in-person KEEN clinics. KEEN has a lot of unique exercise opportunities, and I especially enjoyed the KEEN Paddles event. For this event, Dogpatch Paddles donated both their time and resources for a kayaking and paddle boarding exploration of the Central Basin of the Bay. I worked with Willy, a 20-year-old diagnosed with ASD who had a limited vocabulary and high-support needs. He responded best to direct yes/no questions and was extremely friendly. This was my first time working closely with a young adult diagnosed with ASD who was also high support. I focused on encouraging Willy and explaining tasks such as how to get into and paddle the kayak. We traveled with a group of other volunteers, directed by staff members. After exploring in the water, we came together for a proud circle, where all the kids shared something they were proud of.



I learned a lot from my experience working with KEEN. I’m continuing as a program director for the ACEing Autism Pasadena branch and hope to incorporate some of the perspectives I learned to improve the program. I noticed that KEEN had a lot of sponsors and partnerships with private facilities allowing for exciting and unique exercise clinics. Facilitating these relationships allows the organization to thrive and continue supporting kids with special needs. Also, I enjoyed the more conversational elements of the programming, such as the proud circle at the end of the sessions and may incorporate these practices in my future clinics, so the kids have an opportunity to communicate their feelings. Overall, I had an amazing experience, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to explore an area of activism I will continue to engage with.

 

The Caltech Y challenges students to grow into responsible citizens of the world. It is with this mission in mind that the Y created the Advocating Change Together (ACT) Award, providing motivated Caltech students with a unique opportunity to learn about themselves and their place in society by seeking to impact the world through community engagement, activism, and leadership. The ACT Award is generously funded by the Caltech Employees Federal Credit Union.

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