KEEN on Growing Offers Disabled Youth a Chance to Get Their Hands Dirty


When Turbana Corporation, one of the leading tropical-fruit importers in North America, announced a new social-media campaign for nonprofits — “Win 25K for Your Cause” —  KEEN New York (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) supporters mobilized to take the prize. KEEN’s executive director, Maggie Harrison, stayed up for 24 hours at one point, so that she could vote every 25 minutes during one featured day of the voter-driven contest; her fiancé helped keep her awake on a steady stream of caffeine. In the end, the charity won the cash, and it has since established a new urban gardening project, in conjunction with East Harlem’s P.S. 206 Jose Celso Barbosa, encouraging disabled athletes to get in touch with the environment.

“The money was earned purely based on votes. It had nothing to do with the vision,” Harrison says. “People rallied like I’d never seen before.”

Modeled on a program started in Oxford, England, KEEN was brought to Washington, D.C., in 1992 and has since branched out to cities across the country. The organization aims to provide recreational activities for disabled kids and teens, such as sports and swim opportunities. Participants, referred to as athletes, are never turned away due to the nature of their challenges. Many members fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, yet there are also children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida, and other physical handicaps, some of which require wheelchairs or crutches. Each athlete is paired one-to-one with a highly trained volunteer. The NYC affiliate is one of the newer branches of the organization, and it is also one of the biggest.

The garden idea sprouted after the contest was won, when Harrison and her colleagues were discussing what to do with the influx of capital. Different proposals were thrown around, but after spending a day working in her own yard, board president Jane G. Stevens asked, “What about a garden?”

The concept was well received. Turbana — the U.S. wing of Uniban, a co-op started by Colombian banana farmers 45 years ago — loved the experimental nature of the idea, which tied physical activity and healthy eating to the experience of growing food. Drawing on its reputation as a leader in social consciousness in the agriculture industry, Turbana created Fundaunibán: a Latin American foundation whose mission is to encourage sustainable growth and improve living conditions in banana- and plantain- growing regions.

The organization started by building employee housing and has since branched into infrastructure, education, and environmental protection initiatives. Turbana was the first to introduce Fair Trade bananas to North America. KEEN on Growing blends the missions of both institutions. “Gardening came randomly,” Harrison says. “We went back and forth with a couple ideas. It was all about what made the most sense with our athletes and commitment. The idea is very new and innovative — it hasn’t been done in New York City before.”

Finding a plot of land was the next step. Through searching and a bit of luck, the folks at KEEN came in contact with P.S. 206 Jose Celso Barbosa in East Harlem (508 East 120th Street), a school that also works with many children on the autism spectrum. Volunteers from the community and the Horticultural Society of New York began working on the initial setup during the spring, so students at the school had the opportunity to learn about plants and watering. “It’s co-owned by everyone that’s touched a leaf or watered planters,” says Harrison. “They have ownership in the garden.”

Since officially opening on Sunday, June 7, students, athletes, parents, and members of the community have been pitching in and hanging out on the plot. The garden is open on select Saturdays and Sundays though the end of the summer. While she was excited to roll out the scheme, Harrison has been somewhat surprised by the positive feedback. For most of KEEN’s scheduled activities, parents will drop the athletes off and pick them up when they’re done at the end of the day. With the garden, however, many mothers and fathers have been sticking around to join in on the action.

The organization has been aiming to teach the kids about the world in a fun and practical way. So far, it has hosted trivia and arts-and-crafts events (like painting clay pots) and tastings: The city-raised kids have been able to taste lettuce straight out of the ground, many for the first time, comparing it to salads they eat at home. In the beginning, Harrison thought many participants would be freaked out by the dirt and insects. So when the idea for a ladybug release came up, she assumed it might be too much for the young urbanites. She’s since realized she was wrong. “The first day we were there, one of the athletes found a ladybug and was like, ‘Look!’ All the kids were so gentle, wanting to let it crawl around on them.”

In the next four to six weeks, Harrison and her team hope to culminate with a big harvest event. Currently, she’s looking to involve a celebrity chef or other culinary personality for a demonstration. Since P.S. 206 is undergoing construction, the present site of the garden is temporary. But Harrison and Turbana are striving to keep the project going, whether at the school or another location.