On Tuesday afternoon in Brady Squash Center on the fourth floor of Payne Whitney Gymnasium, all 15 courts were filled with young squash players.
Within the walls of each court, athletes could be seen alternating hitting a small rubber ball with their rackets against the front wall, which created resounding thuds that echoed throughout the facility.
But the majority of the young players weren’t college students — they were elementary and high school students from the New Haven community.
The children are all part of Squash Haven, an academic and athletic enrichment program that serves students from the Elm City. The program currently provides 70 students, ranging from fourth to 10th grade, with free after-school tutoring, mentoring and squash training at Payne Whitney throughout the week.
Founded in 2007, Squash Haven is one of 10 programs around the country that make up the National Urban Squash and Education Association (NUSEA), a network of urban squash programs, many of which are affiliated with universities. The programs partner with local schools where at least 70 percent of students’ families meet federal low-income thresholds, said Julie Greenwood, executive director of Squash Haven. She added that all of the students who graduate from these urban squash programs go on to four-year colleges.
“We’re developing athletes, developing educational skills, and because it’s so small and intimate, what we’re really doing is supporting kids and families for a long period of time,” Greenwood said.
The combination of academic and athletic support Squash Haven offers makes the program popular among New Haven families. But admission to the program is competitive. Students interested in joining Squash Haven must go through a rigorous application process that includes a written application, parent interviews and teacher recommendations.
Greenwood said the program looks for candidates who will apply themselves both on the court and in the classroom.
“I think the most important variables from our perspective are motivation and commitment,” Greenwood said. “What we’re looking for are kids who are going to be motivated to do their best across settings.”
Students in the program typically head to Payne Whitney after school at least three days a week. They usually begin with one-hour sessions on the squash court, followed by 15 minutes of fitness, 30 minutes of snack and announcements. The program typically ends with one hour of academic study and homework help.
Many of the students who participate in Squash Haven knew nothing about the sport prior to joining the program.
“I never heard of squash,” eighth-grader Moubarak Ouro-Aguy said. “I thought it was something to eat.”
Thirteen-year-old Elaine Negron said she wanted to join Squash Haven in order to be able to travel.
“My friends told me about it and all the cool trips they went to,” she said. “I didn’t travel that much, so I wanted to travel and play.”
Greenwood and a small staff work full-time to run Squash Haven, but they also receive a lot of support from volunteer tutors, mentors and coaches, many of whom are Yale students. Yale Athletics donates both office space and court time to the program, while all members of the men’s and women’s squash team work one hour per week as coaches for the students.
Millie Tomlinson ’14, a member of the women’s squash team, said she enjoys the opportunity to teach her sport to new players.
“It’s nice to introduce new people to the sport,” Tomlinson said. “It’s nice to get more people playing squash and help younger kids learn how to play.”
Not all Yale students involved with Squash Haven come from squash backgrounds.
Emily Graham ’13 said she had never seen or played squash before coming to Yale, but that she decided to begin volunteering with Squash Haven at the beginning of her freshman year because she wanted to become involved in a tutoring program for New Haven youth.
The staff and volunteers who form the core of Squash Haven have helped students find success. This past weekend, all 10 urban squash programs gathered in New York City to compete at the NUSEA Team Nationals. In the boys’ U15 division, Squash Haven finished in first place.
The tournament also featured an essay contest in conjunction with the squash competitions. Two of Squash Haven’s students, sixth-grader Johanile Hurtado and ninth-grader Aaron Brevard, won the contest in their respective age groups for essays on perseverance. Both students earned the opportunity to read their essays at the tournament.
“I was surprised because I’m never satisfied with my work,” Brevard said. “My voice was kind of shaky, but everybody said they liked it.”
“My face turned red,” Hurtado said.
Greenwood said she plans on expanding Squash Haven from its current 70 New Haven students to 100 over the next two years. Though running the program is a lot of work, Greenwood said the small daily rewards make directing Squash Haven and providing families with a “transformative experience” well worth the effort.
Squash Haven was founded in 2006.