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A Ball, A Racquet & A Dream

Posted on 20 August 2009

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Sayed Selim, the Director of Squash at Southampton Recreation Center (SYS), calls the sport a fast paced game of cat-and-mouse which, he adds, must be seen live.

During the third annual Sotheby’s Realty Hamptons Squash Juniors Open Tournament held at SYS last weekend, Selim’s characterization of squash was on the mark. Dozens of children and adults in the audience sat in the bleachers, absorbed in the game as they watched every dive, dodge and near collision between the two players negotiating the indoor court. For many of the players involved in the tournament, though, squash isn’t merely a recreational sport, but a means to explore new environments, away from their stomping grounds of the inner-city in the Bronx, and gain access to a better education. The dedication these young players display on the the court spills over into their personal lives and is due in no small part to their participation in the not-for-profit organization, City Squash, also based in the Bronx. Last weekend, more than a dozen children involved in City Squash were invited to play in the tournament, and many of them went home with trophies and a taste of what life is like on the East End.

“City Squash is about opening up opportunities for inner-city youth by combining squash and academics,” explained Tim Wyant, Executive Director of City Squash, who chaperoned the group of children to the tournament. City Squash was founded in 2002 by Sanford Schwartz as an after school program, which in addition to squash and academics focuses on mentoring, traveling, community service, and high school and college preparation. Around 115 students, ranging in ages from eight to eighteen, participate in the program. In order to recruit children into the program, City Squash reaches out to two schools in the Bronx and shows a presentation to the children about squash.

“Squash is the hook,” noted Wyant about what initial attracts the children to the program. The standards for being accepted into City Squash, however, are rigorous and children must complete a series of tests and interviews to show that they can handle its demands.

“Although there is plenty of demand, we can only accept a limited number of students . . . The idea is that this is a nine to ten year commitment and it is paramount to find students who are most likely to finish school and are motivated and gifted,” added Wyant.

According to Wyant, almost 60 percent of students participating in the program go on to attend private day schools or boarding schools.

“Mostly everyone goes to boarding school . . . I guess I would be homesick, but the older kids make boarding school seem like it is exciting,” said Esmeralda Mejia, as she watched older students compete against local players. Mejia is an 11-year-old City Squash student who played over the weekend.

This is the second year, City Squash players have participated in the local tournament, but Selim and Wally Glennon, an SYS board member and head of Squash in the Hamptons, hope to establish a local program, named The Academy: SYS Squash and Academic Enrichment Program, for local youths this fall. The Academy will be modeled after City Squash.

“This type of program is successful on a number of levels. These children are being faced with both mental and physical challenges . . . and it is a brilliant example of how to teach kids life lessons and open their horizons,” remarked Glennon.

The academic staff is already in place and Selim will oversee the squash part of the program, but Glennon adds that they are still looking for funds. Overall, the program will cost around $100,000 a year to run, however, the children will not have to pay a dime for the tutoring and squash lessons they receive. Glennon said he is working with the Southampton public school to help introduce students into The Academy at the beginning of the school year.

Although the initial costs for this type of program appears steep, the benefit to the students involved is immeasurable. Edgardo Gonzales, 18, who was among the first students to participate in City Squash, said the experience made him a “more responsible and better person.”

“I think it taught me how to prioritize, and how to balance squash and academics,” noted Gonzales, who will attend Hobart and William Smith College in the fall.

Wyant notices a steady change in the demeanor of children as they continue with the program. He often accompanies the players to their competitions and remains close with many of them.

“Their grades go up. Their self-esteem improves . . . They have higher sights and aspirations for themselves as they get out of the Bronx,” explained Wyant of the student’s experiences.

Squash, added Wyant, is a great mechanism to attract scholarships to higher education institutions. Alex Patricolo, a 12-year-old Tuckahoe student and finalist in the weekend tournament, hopes to be one of those students to earn a college scholarship because of his love of the game. Patricolo was first introduced to squash by his mother, Linda, who added that the sport has improved her son’s focus and sportsmanship.

Programs like City Squash also help foster friendships between children from disparate socio-economic backgrounds. When the City Squash students travel for competitions and tournaments, they often stay with host families whose children are squash players.

Sag Harbor resident David Diskin and his family housed two City Squash players last weekend, hoping the skills of the older players would rub off on his 12-year-old daughter who is starting to play the game.

“The families and the kids might be from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum, but this can also help kids gain some perspective,” added Wyant. Diskin said he was impressed with the children and would participate as a host parent in future tournaments.

Glennon and Selim hope to impart local disadvantaged children with similarly invaluable skills on and off the court, and instill in them a life passion for the game which cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

As Glennon, a self-professed squash addict, said, “It is one hell of a game” that can do a lot of good in the East End community.

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