SquashSmarts mentors Philadelphia youth using squash and academics. There’s no expensive membership or private school-priced tuition to join, only those who need an opportunity.
By Luke Meli
Fifteen African American kids, sixth graders through high schoolers, are grinning from ear to ear, yelling with joy, and grasping squash racquets.
This is a normal scene at SquashSmarts in 2022.
It’s an image that would have been unlikely 20 years ago.
SquashSmarts is an organization in Philadelphia that mentors inner city youth using squash and academics. There’s no expensive membership or private school-priced tuition to join SquashSmarts, only those who need an opportunity.
“It definitely made a huge impact,” said Jose Rupert-Zayas, a former member of the program and the current Squash and Fitness Director of the middle school program. “I knew this was something I could dedicate my life to.”
The sport that the US Squash Organization once said targeted men and women with median incomes of $300,000 now has a counterpoint.
“They’re open to help everyone,” said Shenae Walters, a former member of SquashSmarts who now attends Herzing University. “[They] don’t just pick and choose each individual that they’re going to help.”
“Help” is an understatement of the group’s work.
The Philadelphia-based organization, founded back in 2001, has a goal of getting inner-city kids off the streets, and they use squash as a drawing force.
“When I joined the program, squash was everything,” said Rupert-Zayas. “I didn’t want to do any sport other than squash.”
Squash is what brings the kids together, but academics remains the ultimate goal.
According to SquashSmarts, 44% of students in Philadelphia’s public school system that start high school will not graduate on time. By contrast, 77% of SquashSmarts’ high school seniors have graduated on time and been accepted into college.
SquashSmarts partners with five schools in the Philadelphia area, and uses the facilities at the Lenfest Center and Drexel University to run their program. This diverse reach allows the organization to connect with children of Black, Asian, and Latino backgrounds.
Some kids even mentioned their grades going from incomplete up to as high as a B, a turnaround that can be attributed to the extra help they received.
“I got the support I didn’t get at school,” said Raphael, a middle school student in the program.
The students in the organization understand the impact SquashSmarts has had in their lives. Being a part of the group and the community offers a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Kareem Price, the Director of Transportation for SquashSmarts, is a seven-year graduate of the SquashSmarts middle and high school programs. The Community College of Philadelphia graduate owes his success to the organization he grew up in.
“If I can do it, anyone can do it,” Price said. “To show kids I’m a product of my community as well and look where I’m at, you can be here too through SquashSmarts.”
Torey Broderson, the athletic director of the high school program, has started an organization of this nature in San Francisco, Charleston, and now Philadelphia.
“I started a similar program to SquashSmarts in Charleston called Kids on Point,” Broderson said. “That started this journey with this type of nonprofit with athletic and squash programs.”
Some in the program described Philadelphia as the hub of squash, thanks to the growing number of squash clubs and programs within schools in the area. Building up an organization of this nature is something Broderson is familiar with.
The program has enjoyed yearly success. According to reports from 2019, before the pandemic, the organization worked with 237 boys and girls, boasted 164 volunteer mentors, coaches, and tutors, and an average student tender of nearly five years.
Broderson hopes the program can elevate to another level, a level that has lowered since the pandemic began.
“Pre-pandemic, this organization was competing in national tournaments,” Broderson said. “My goal is to get the program back where it was.”
The success as a team and the increased graduation rates are important. But the students value the bonds they’ve built with each other over everything else.
According to SquashSmarts, 8 million US children are unsupervised after school. In cities where it’s unsafe to have kids roaming the streets, the students recognize the significance of the program, and the unique experience they all share.
“My favorite part of the program is the people,” Walters said. “I used to really look forward to seeing everyone’s faces every day.”
These connections don’t leave upon graduation either. There are six SquashSmarts graduates that now work on the 16-member senior staff.
All six went through the entire seven-year program.
Some of the other senior staff members boast professional squash backgrounds. Two come from the US Squash Racquets Association and use their experience to grow the kid’s enjoyment of the game, an important tactic in keeping them in the program.
In every staff member’s biography on the website, they preach the importance of growing the diversity of the program, and getting inner city kids off the streets. This aligns with the mission statement of SquashSmarts
Now, 21 years after the creation of SquashSmarts, it’s no longer a surprise to walk into a squash program and see kids from non-white backgrounds making a racket on the court.