For METROsquash director David Kay, there’s a certain irony to the perception of squash--a sport similar to racquetball, where opponents ricochet a small hollow ball at each other using a racket--as a sport more common with affluent people.
“There's definitely some truth to that perception,” Kay told Illinois Business Daily. “I don't think it's a perception that holds up when you look at it on a worldwide scale... . It's a very accessible sport once you have a squash court.”
It’s that accessibility that Kay and the crew at the non-profit METROsquash have used to help disadvantaged children in Chicago reach their full academic potential. With the construction of a new building, however, the group needs all the help it can get -- to the tune of roughly $1.5 million per year in operating expenses, as well as volunteers.
A recent donation of $50,000 from Dental Dreams will help the crew at METROSquash to keep doing its work.
“It’s a very significant contribution, and we’re very fortunate to have Dental Dreams and other civic groups…(that) believe in the program and believe it takes a real investment to make a difference,” Kay said.
Started in 2006, METROSquash initially taught approximately a dozen fifth graders how to play the game using facilities on the University of Chicago’s campus, which, at the time, was the only place such courts were available in the area. Kay said students are allowed to stay in the program until college graduation -- up to 12 years, if the student starts in fifth grade.
Students now spend an average of 10 hours per week with the program after school and on weekends, split between playing or learning squash, and focusing on academics. There are no particular entrance requirements to the program, save that the students have “good” attendance and bring “great attitude and effort,” according to the program’s website.
Kay said they use what’s called a “pathway” model to integrate academics and training.
“We really use the game of squash as a hook to engage students academically,” Kay said. “It’s a wonderful sport that has a great connection to education.”
Just last year, the program moved out of its shared space and into a new 21,000-square-foot facility on 61st and Cottage Grove streets, only blocks from the university. The new building features four, state-of-the-art classrooms, a computer lab and, of course, eight squash courts (one large enough for doubles). Kay said the new facility has not only enhanced the experience for current students, but also expanded its reach to new ones -- the program currently has a waiting list of 40 to 50 students.
“That’s made things a lot easier,” Kay said. “We’re very visible, we’re very embedded in the community.”
Despite the jump, Kay said he doesn’t expect the program to grow so exponentially, but rather to continue to maintain the quality of its efforts. Since 2013, the program has touted a 100 percent high school graduation, college acceptance and college enrollment rate for its participants. In addition, squash players from the program have traveled to 60 cities across six countries as part of squash tournaments, college tours and other program-coordinated field trips.
“We’d love to try to find ways to get more students to engage the program, but also to be able to serve them in a very meaningful way,” Kay said. “We’re never going to be a program that serves tens of thousands of students, because we really want to have a transformative impact on the students we do serve.”