Squash, a “weird but cool” sport, offers new opportunities for young people in San Diego

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Community organizations in Southeast San Diego work together to give underserved youth access to opportunities that will help them succeed in life.

Those opportunities include teaching kids squash – the sport, not the vegetable – which has become a key part of Access Youth Academy’s movement to get students into college.

Squash, akin to racquetball, originated in England and is popular on the East Coast. It is relatively unknown in San Diego, which offers scholarship opportunities to local students that some may not be aware of.

Since 2006, the after-school academy has used a combination of academic enrichment, life skills, athletic training and financial support to help children reach their full potential, officials said.

“Squash is one vehicle that can get them through college, but it’s not the only one,” said program director Shelby Coopwood. “We work with student-athletes, so the student comes first… We take a holistic approach, so we teach health and wellness, we emphasize community service, social responsibility. “

Now, the academy is working to forge partnerships with other local organizations, like the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation and the KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy (KAPA) to continue expanding its reach.

In July, Access Youth collaborated with the Jacobs Center to open its new facility, located on Euclid Avenue in Chollas View, featuring eight squash courts, locker rooms, four classrooms, a computer lab and more.

“Most of our students are from this area, so it made sense to build here,” said Cindy Sweeney, director of development for the academy. “There’s a lot of collaboration going on here…that really come together to elevate this region.”

The average household in the Southeast San Diego area, home to about 165,000 people, has an annual income of less than $25,000, and nearly 22% of families with children under 18 live below the poverty line federal, according to 2020 US Census data.

Jacobs Center President and CEO Reginald Jones says working with Access and KAPA is part of the Jacobs Center’s overall goal of creating positive change in the region.

“This is part of a larger strategy… aimed at improving the quality of life for residents and, at the same time, increasing opportunities for young people to grow and experience a quality education, as well as activities that they normally wouldn’t have in their community,” Jones added.

The Access program, which is 100% free for students, currently serves approximately 140 young people and has worked with students for 12 years: seventh through 12th grade; through four years of college; and for two years beyond college when they enter the workforce, Sweeney said.

Students during squash practice at Access Youth Academy, an after-school program.

(Kristian Carreon/For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Among the schools the academy is now working with in the area is KAPA, a tuition-free charter college founded in 2003, which shares similar ideals.

“We really believe in being a community school,” said KAPA director Roxanne Cowperthwaite, “and we know that the work we’re trying to do, especially after the pandemic, takes up an entire village.”

Cowperthwaite says it’s about giving children access to various enrichment programs.

“We want our children to lead lives full of choices,” she said. “Extracurricular activities are the application of character skills that are taught in school.”

“Academics and extracurriculars help build the whole child, and they need to work in partnership with each other,” she added. “It’s really important for kids to learn that they both go together.”

Seventh-grade student Yailin Dircio says it’s the relationships she’s forged with teachers and peers at KAPA, as well as the academic support she’s received, that helps her better prepare for the university.

“You can actually talk to the teachers and they can give you more attention than in other schools,” seventh grader Antuan Martinez added.

KAPA, located next to the Jacobs Center, is a few blocks from the new squash facility. After class, Access Program students travel to the academy, where they not only play squash for an hour and a half, but also receive one-on-one tutoring and mentoring for an hour and a half each day. after school. .

Martinez, one of KAPA’s students who is also in the squash program, says it’s better than other sports he’s played before.

“It’s weird, but it’s cool,” he said, and the uniqueness of squash “is good because you can actually get a scholarship because not many people play it.”

“Because it’s not a very popular sport, if someone is a very skilled player, or even a relatively good player, their chances of getting a scholarship are higher,” Coopwood added.

Over the past 16 years, Access students have won more than $9.7 million in scholarships, including the Gates Millennium and Quest Bridge Awards, and have been accepted and graduated from some of the top schools. noted nationwide, such as Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford and UC Berkeley, according to program officials.

A former professional squash player and long-time coach in the UK, Deon Saffery, squash manager and coach at Access, said squash is generally a sport for the wealthy.

“You have to force these kids to try harder, to do more,” Saffery said of other programs. “Here they make you do more — they want more, they want your attention… It’s so easy for them to progress because they really want to, and they appreciate what the program does for them, they have a smile on their face.” faces.”

Squash coach Deon Saffery talks to Tenbet Tekelaregay

Squash coach Deon Saffery speaks with Tenbet Tekelaregay during training at the Access Youth Academy.

(Kristian Carreon/For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Fifth-year student Liya Abayneh joined the program last year and, months later, was one of a handful of students chosen to attend a tournament in New York.

“I had never been on a trip before, (so this was) awesome,” she said.

For eighth-grade student Jazmine Nguyen, squash is special because it all depends on your state of mind.

“You don’t have to be tall or short,” she said. “It all depends on your strategies and where you hit the ball.”

Access officials say each of the 81 students who completed the program graduated from high school and were accepted to college. Additionally, each of the 33 who completed the full 12-year access program completed their education and entered the workforce in a professional capacity, they say.

Saffery moved from the UK to San Diego to join the Access team last year. She says it was not an easy decision, but it was worth it.

“I’ve been so lucky to be able to live an amazing life playing squash…and then give kids a chance to play the sport I love, that’s a no-brainer,” she said . “It makes the job more enjoyable because you know you are having an impact on the children’s lives.

“They had never even heard of squash…and now they’re totally hooked.”

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