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MetroSquash serves local youths a winning mix of athletics and academics

First popularized at Harrow, an exclusive British boy’s school, in 1830, squash has long been perceived as an upper-crust pursuit, but 30 youths involved in Evanston’s MetroSquash program have discovered a game that is highly accessible and may unlock doors to academic and professional success.

Now in its fourth year, the Evanston program is an offshoot of the larger MetroSquash operation headquartered in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood and founded in 2005. Together the two locations serve some 400 students with demonstrated need. The playbook combines athletic training, academic support, counseling services and mentoring, beginning in middle school and continuing through post-secondary studies.

Students who join MetroSquash begin with a three-month trial period to see if the program is a good fit. Pictured here are Zoe Lasenby, Ivy Sandoval, Joss Watson, Tony Pacheco and Jeff Thomas. Credit: MetroSquash

The numbers speak for themselves, according to Janae Meyer, who has been with MetroSquash for six years and will assume the position of CEO next September.

“We do have a 100% high school graduation rate. All of our students go to a post-secondary institution, and about 90% choose to attend a traditional four-year college,” she said.

Meyer noted that MetroSquash also provides full support to students pursuing alternative options, such as military service or vocational training programs.

“Our long-term outcome,” she said, “is healthy adults with economic and social stability.”

Because Evanston’s program is relatively new, its oldest participants are now in 10th grade and still formulating post-secondary plans. Local program director Erika Alcibar explained, “Our goal is to try to recruit kids in sixth grade and hopefully retain them so they can progress through our continuum of services which runs through college graduation.”

Each year a new cohort of approximately 15 students is selected from Haven, Nichols and Chute middle schools, MetroSquash Evanston’s partner institutions. Participants need not be stellar students or stand-out athletes, but they must demonstrate a willingness to commit to the program, which is free of charge.

Each MetroSquash cohort meets with academic counselors three times a week before hitting the squash courts for drills. Credit: MetroSquash

“Fifty percent of our programing is really focused on academic support and helping our young students develop positive academic skills,” said Alcibar. “The other 50% includes exposing them to squash.” Each cohort participates three days a week after school, spending an hour with academic coordinators in a rented classroom space on Maple Avenue and an hour on the courts with coaches at the McGaw YMCA, another partner institution.

Yolanda Esionye, ​​a sophomore at ETHS who has been a part of MetroSquash since middle school, said it was the combination of sports and academics that initially drew her to the program.

“I thought it would be fun because I didn’t really do any sports at the time,” she recalled. “I saw that they had opportunities for me to do my homework there so I wouldn’t have to do it after I got home.”

Esionye said she had never played squash before but has fully embraced the sport and will continue to enjoy the game even after her school days are behind her. “It’s taught me a lot about believing in myself,” she said. “You just have to keep going, even after a loss. You can’t keep beating yourself up about it, because you can always try again.”

For fledging squash enthusiasts, the sport not only affords an opportunity for personal growth and fitness, but also the chance to travel across the country and even internationally for tournaments. Competitions are frequently held at Ivy League or other competitive schools that may not have been on a player’s radar prior to joining the program.

“We do our best to help the students identify great schools that might be outside what the typical choice might be,” said Alcibar. The system “opens a lot of doors for students to build networks,” she added.

Collegiate scholarships for squash are rare, according to Alcibar, but MetroSquash has a college and careers team dedicated to helping students identify ways that they could gain admission to top schools and secure the necessary funding to attend. To help defray the cost of incidentals, the program provides an annual stipend of $1,000 for the first four years to every student who goes to college.

Alcibar said she would like to see the local program expand its footprint beyond the temporary classroom and limited court space offered at the YMCA in order to put even more youths on a path for success. Meyer agreed that identifying space for a larger permanent facility in Evanston is a top priority in the coming year and she is enthusiastic about broadening the organization’s community reach.

“Over the years I’ve learned how much young people have to offer,” said Meyer. “If you provide the right environment, the support and the care and just get out of the way, you can witness incredible things happening.”

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