Of all the sports around which to build an inner-city after school program for Chicago minority kids, squash seems an unlikely choice.
An indoor racquet sport accessible until recently mainly to people with memberships in high-end clubs, squash in the U.S. is about as elite as it gets — a passionate pursuit of well-heeled white people.
Yet somehow that very difference has made it the perfect hook for one of the city’s hottest programs for South Side youth looking for opportunity.
The program, called MetroSquash, provides academic support and competitive squash training to fifth- through 12th-graders, then gives them partial college scholarships and doesn’t ease up until they graduate.
The point isn’t to train elite-level squash players, though that’s increasingly a happy byproduct. The point is to help young people realize their potential.
Toward that end, lots of resources are flowing: tutors, coaches, mentors, a fitness instructor, social worker and more, all creating a friendly atmosphere in a spanking new facility in Woodlawn.
It was clear to me after a two-hour visit that any kid who sticks with this program is going to have a chance to succeed in life.
How much that has to do with the sport of squash itself is open to interpretation, but it’s a big part of what gets kids through the door and coming back. Maybe as important, it attracts the interest of private funders — and college admissions staffs.
There is no cost to families in the program, which includes travel to tournaments across the country, many of them held on college campuses that give kids a taste of what’s possible.
Marylyn Rogel, who joined as a high school sophomore, said MetroSquash took her on college visits and sent her to a training camp one summer at elite Williams College in Massachusetts.
“I got to see myself on a college campus. It really helped me dream,” Rogel told me.
This year, Rogel, now 23, graduated from the University of Vermont, making her part of MetroSquash’s first college graduating class. She’s working in Miami for Teach for America.
MetroSquash started in 2005 with 10 fifth-grade students who trained on the squash courts at University of Chicago.
The program moved two years ago into its own facility at 61st and Cottage Grove with four classrooms and eight squash courts.
MetroSquash now has 160 students in the program, 95 percent of them African-American. Another 45 are in college.
Applicants have to try out. For every kid accepted this year, another was rejected.
Lauren Rich, MetroSquash’s development director, said prospective participants are judged on attitude and effort, not athletic ability.
Students must commit 10 hours a week to the program, usually making three weeknight visits. Time is split evenly between academics and squash. When grades slip, no squash.
Those who join tend to stay.
“It’s an amazing program because it helps students academically,” said Veronica Messenger, who has two children in the program — Michel’le, 17, now a freshman at Clark Atlanta University, and Malik, 14.
Messenger retired from a city job this year and moved to Frankfort but still makes the long drive to MetroSquash three times a week to keep Malik involved.
“These students kind of become a family,” she said. “They look out for each other. They support each other.”
Squash works, everyone says, because it is open to both boys and girls, has no size limitations, is great exercise and can be played for life.
To which I would add it also must be fun, or the kids wouldn’t be interested.
I asked Kyla Armistead, 16, and Issys Griffin, 11, if they are good squash players.
“Yes,” they said in the self-assured manner of those just stating the facts.
What do they tell their friends in school about squash?
Issys said she doesn’t talk about it. Kyla said she understands. When she was Issys’ age, she didn’t talk about it either.
Even now, she said, “They all think it is a joke or something. They think it’s some kind of vegetable.”
Squash is indeed a vegetable. But as any of those MetroSquash kids attending college can tell you, it’s no joke.
For more information, go to www.metrosquash.org