Squash is generally thought to be reserved for card-carrying members of country clubs, Hamptons regulars and the prep school elite. But that image is starting to change, thanks to a growing number of urban squash programs across the country, including one right here in the Elm City.

Squash Haven, an after-school program for New Haven middle schoolers that started in 2006, is a part of a larger, national movement geared toward making squash accessible to low income youth. Although the program is supported by Yale and uses its facilities, it is funded by donations and is dependent upon volunteers, including members of the varsity squash teams. Over the past three years, Squash Haven has grown to include almost 40 squash students and aims to add 10 or 11 new ones each year.

The program’s mission is to provide support for academic, athletic and character development from the fifth grade until high school graduation.

“In the United States, the urban programs are diversifying what has historically been a sport for the socioeconomically privileged,” Squash Haven Executive Director Julie Greenwood said recently. “In a sport this small, the effects — along with increasing numbers of international players attending college and staying in the U.S. — are pervasive.”

The National Urban Squash and Education Association (NUSEA) recognizes Squash Haven as one of its charter members.

“We wanted to do this program for about six or seven years before it got started,” said Dave Talbott, head coach of both Yale squash teams and a founding member of Squash Haven. “And also, we’re not alone in this idea of squash education and enrichment idea.”

Squash Haven students compete at the Urban Team Championships and at the Urban Individual Championships against other members of the NUSEA. Similar programs include SquashBusters in Boston, StreetSquash in Harlem, N.Y., CitySquash in the Bronx, N.Y., SquashSmarts in Philadelphia and METROsquash in Chicago.

“Because our program is so multi-faceted, there is the potential for our students to benefit in a wide range of developmental areas,” Greenwood said. “We have already seen changes — some dramatic — in personal, athletic and academic areas.”

The program places a heavy emphasis on academics and stresses the importance of education for success. In addition to receiving tutoring and homework help, participants are encouraged to apply to the private high schools across the country and are informed about financial assistance.

“I think that the fact that there is an inextricable link between squash and education in this country is important,” Greenwood explained. “Squash has historically been played at some of the best private schools and universities in the country.”

“So when we go to a tournament and it is at Choate,” she added, referring to boarding school Choate Rosemary Hall in nearby Wallingford, Conn., “our team members are exposed to educational institutions that they might not otherwise know about.”

Eneida Martinez, a seventh grader at John Martinez Middle School, joined Squash Haven three years ago, when the program was just beginning. When asked about her goals for the future, she answered with confidence and poise that she hopes to attend a private high school and study medicine at Georgetown.

“And of course, I’m going to play squash for the rest of my life,” she added. “I love squash.”

In an effort to make the program more holistic, Squash Haven officials organize community service projects and sponsored cultural field trips for the kids. Students go to shows and museums and regularly visit local charity organizations.

Michael Berrios, another seventh grader at John Martinez Middle School, said these activities are his favorite part of the program.

“I really like doing the community service because we get to help people for different reasons,” Berrios said. “One time, we went to a diaper bank for people who can’t afford them – they’re pretty expensive.”

Berrios plans on applying to Choate for high school and is aiming for the Ivy League trinity — Yale, Harvard or Princeton — for college.

On the court, participants are able to relax and learn a game they have come to love. They receive top-notch squash instruction from each member of the Yale varsity team.

“For me, it’s most fulfilling to see kids who are playing purely for the love of the game,” captain Ethan Oetter ’09 said. “They’re just at the beginning of everything. I’ve been playing the game for so long that seeing them reminds me that squash is this beautiful, simple game.”

The Yale players are as much mentors as they are instructors. Their squash students are exposed to a group of hardworking Bulldogs, to whom they look up as role models.

“The mentors all help us, and each other, out,” Martinez said. “Everyone is always willing to give and listen to advice.”

Participants said the program’s benefits extend not only to students, but to instructors as well.

“I always have fun doing it,” Rusty Feldman ’10 said. “The kids are all great and they always know your name. Whether they become great squash players or not, it’s a great program for the kids. We all have a fair amount of fun and they’re perceptive of our energy.”

Sharyar Aziz ’10 added, “From playing on the Yale team, we can all appreciate how much we’ve gotten from squash, and teaching allows us to give back to the sport. It’s great to come together for that hour or so a week and help train the next generation of squash players.”

Above all, Squash Haven aims to foster a sense of community between players, instructors and volunteers in a safe, nurturing environment.

“I really liked squash when I first tried it out,” Martinez said. “I learned so much, and everyone wanted to keep working with me. They really made me feel comfortable. We’re like a family.”