A nontraditional sport has unexpectedly worked its way into a number of inner-city neighborhoods nationwide.
Over the past decade, a string of urban squash programs have been popping up across the country, in hopes of helping underprivileged students develop better exercise skills and providing academic assistance.
“They were like, [it’s] squash,” Sakora Miller told AP, reminiscing on her introduction to the racquetball-like sport years ago in seventh-grade. SquashSmarts, a Philadelphia after-school program, had been visiting Miller’s gym class to recruit students to try-out the alien-sounding sport.
“I was like, I’m not learning that,” said Miller. “It’s not for me.”
Still, she decided to try out the new sport and proved to have a knack for squash. Fast forward to 2014, where the 23-year-old upcoming Penn State graduate has just been hired as squash director.
On a mission to “[give] kids their best shot,” SquashSmarts and 14 additional programs in cities like Baltimore, Bronx, Harlem, Oakland and Chicago serve about 1,400 students and boast a combined annual budget of more than $7 million. Plans to expand programming to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Hartford, Conn. and Cartagena Colombia are currently in the works.
Due to the foreign nature of squash in urban neighborhoods, a number of students have no qualms about rejecting the sport at first glance. Like Miller, current SquashSmarts participant Joshua Smith was reportedly skeptical about the joining.
“What is squash? That’s stupid,” he thought, mirroring Miller’s initial disbelief.
“And then I tried it,” the 13-year-old eighth-grader told AP, “and I love it now.”
The urban squash programs originally operated independently, after a squash pro began the first initiative in Boston in 1995. However, since 2005, the programs have banded together as members of the National Urban Squash and Education Association, the New York-based umbrella organization.
The growth of these unconventional programs was aided by a simultaneous growth in the sport (squash’s popularity reportedly increased from 600,000 in 2007 to almost 1.3 million in 2012) and an unforeseen accessibility to well-maintained facilities thanks to a global ruling on squash courts.
Apart from being trained in a sport typically associated with privilege in the U.S., program participants also receive travel opportunities, intensive mentoring and partake in community service–three things guaranteed to impress a college admission counselor. On a microlevel, the award-winning urban squash programs also track the cardiovascular fitness of each student, as well as grade-point averages and college placements.
“In a district with a high dropout rate, all those who stayed in the club for seven years have graduated on time and been accepted to college,” SquashSmarts’ executive director Stephen Gregg told AP.
Ultimately, Gregg points to former alum like Miller who are prime examples of the change that the urban squash programs are striving to achieve.
“When the students of SquashSmarts grow up to become the academic directors, the squash directors, the executive directors of this program,” said Gregg, “that, to me, is change in a community.”