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Western's Keene-El brings actions, words to Special Olympics

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For the first two months of her Western High gym class, special education teacher LaDonna Schemm didn't notice. Then a freshman, the ever-bubbly Joy Keene-El would get out of her wheelchair and do everything thrown her way, from tennis to baseball to swimming.

One day, when the physical fitness test came around, she did 61 pushups.

But eventually an activity came that Keene-El said she couldn't do. And so an incredulous Schemm asked why not.

"Look," Keene-El said, hoisting a pant leg. "I don't have any knees."

Keene-El, who stands around 3 feet tall but says she hasn't received a formal diagnosis, is nonetheless a growing figure in the special-needs community as she approaches the end of her junior year of high school. Tonight, the Baltimore native will help begin the state's Special Olympics by reciting a poem she wrote, called "I Am More Than What You See," at Towson University's SECU Arena, before competing in the mini-javelin event Sunday.

Between 1,200 and 1,300 athletes are expected to come out for the Games this weekend, according to spokesman Jason Schriml of the Maryland program.

And for Keene-El, who said she's nervous for her big role, that's where the fun part will start.

"I like to see other people compete, too," she said. "When I see other little kids who can't walk at all, it just puts a smile on my face — and also a smile on their face — when they know they're doing something, [that] they accomplished what they came to do."

Keene-El considers herself lucky. Despite her very short legs, she can still walk short distances without aid. And while her right arm is bowed — and the thumb missing — she has full (and, with her javelin, impressive) use of her left.

All told, her life is, she says, "pretty normal." Alongside her best friend, Maya Jones, Keene-El plays on Western's "unified" bocce and tennis teams, which — as required by Maryland law — bring together able-bodied and special-needs athletes to compete against neighboring schools.

"Ever since she was a baby, I never treated her any different than the rest of my children," said her mother, Sherrell. "She was always treated the exact same."

But one-size-fits-all doesn't work in all cases. Keene-El said her travel to and from the school — provided through the Maryland Transit Administration's Mobility/Paratransit program — has often been difficult and poorly coordinated.

Keene-El said she's lived all over the city, and Schemm calls her a "pioneer" at some of the schools she's attended. For instance, Western, the oldest all-girls public high school in the United States, has increased handicapped accessibility somewhat since Keene-El started in ninth grade.

Her first Special Olympics came the summer before that, after some outside encouragement and a feeling that sometimes "people only see my wheelchair."

As Schriml put it, eliminating that stigma has been one of the main goals of the Special Olympics, which were founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968.

"[The idea is] to put athletes in a field or in a gym or in a pool, where they're a swimmer first or they're a softball player first and an athlete with an intellectual disability second," he said. "Hopefully people recognize the athletic ability before they recognize that it's someone who has an intellectual disability."

And new Special Olympics CEO Janet Froetscher, appointed in October 2013, wants to effect that change on a grander scale. Schriml said Froetscher has set a goal for the organization to double the number of athletes competing nationwide by 2018; currently, only about 7 percent of eligible athletes take part, he said.

Keene-El wants to continue to be a part of that growth, on behalf of those with more severe conditions than her own.

The 18-year-old served as emcee for the city's smaller Special Olympics in May, and about a month after tonight's nerve-racking poem recitation, she'll be one of 160 athletes representing Maryland at the USA Games in New Jersey from June 14 to 21.

"It's good for me to be around somebody [like that]," Jones, the best friend, said of Keene-El. "She knows what she wants to do in life, and she will fight for it."

For now, she'll continue with the events, but Keene-El said she might serve better as a mentor to younger Special Olympians in the future. Her long-term goal, aided by Baltimore's Teacher Academy program, is to be a special education teacher like Schemm, who now serves a larger role for the city's public schools.

In the end, Keene-El hopes to make a bigger name for herself one day. Maybe not on the level of, say, the Ravens, but she wouldn't complain if it were. She's met the team twice through Special Olympics Maryland, once at a casino-night event and once at training camp last summer.

The player who most stood out? Quarterback Joe Flacco.

"He didn't remember me the second time, but that's OK," Keene-El said. She sighs.

Then, only half-jokingly: "He's gonna remember me one day."

rbacic@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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