Nonprofit Spotlight: SquashBusters

Turning urban squash into food for academic success

There’s enough nip in the Boston air to make the prospect of slipping into a hot gym enticing. A student several yards ahead is dressed in athletic gear, and as he enters he holds the door for me. I step into SquashBusters, the first charity in the world to offer squash training to poor urban kids.

An endless tattoo echoes through the three-story complex: “ta, ta, tee ta,” punctuated by the soprano squeak of athletic shoes bearing twisting lunges. Teenagers are signing in at the security desk. One group is from Timilty Middle School, only 31 percent of whose pupils tested proficient in the state-standard English test last year. Half of the first floor is taken up by staff cubicles with prominently open doors. The program is powered by more than 100 volunteers and 27 full- or part-time employees.

This whole scene sprang from a Harvard paper. The vision was to democratize a door-opening sport while providing character development and academic help to kids. Northeastern University offered SquashBusters a free 50-year lease if it could raise the private funds to build courts ($6 million), and with help from Paul Tudor Jones and other donors it did. The program receives no government funding. 

With eight courts (and four ­classrooms) this is actually the largest squash facility in the city. Recruiters visit area schools, bringing racquets with them, to interest kids in the sport. The pitch is simple: if you’d like to learn, we have an opportunity for you, but you’ll have to be committed. For six weeks, kids must show up on time for practices as long as three hours. “Putting words into action and not making excuses is a very real concept here,” says founder Greg Zaff.

Once accepted, students rotate among learning squash from highly skilled instructors, doing homework, and ­attending academic-enrichment classes. Failures on the academic or discipline side will result in less court time—which for many students becomes a pearl of great price. Two students explain to me how exciting squash is, because of its fast pace.

The three goals behind ­SquashBusters are character, health, and college. The program monitors how students are ­faring in school, tracks and rewards good behavior, and tests physical fitness. So far, over 25 participants have gone on to play competitive squash at colleges like Bates, Bucknell, Hamilton, Harvard, Smith, Tufts, and Wesleyan. Fifty-eight alumni are currently enrolled as students, in competitive schools like Brown, Colby, Purdue, ­Trinity, and UPenn, where they are receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars of annual tuition aid. Other graduates are currently employed at the Cambridge Police ­Department, Massachusetts ­General ­Hospital, banks, and hotels.

“It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to squash in the United States,” says Zaff. There are now 20 other ­similar urban squash and education programs around the U.S. An umbrella organization, the National Urban Squash + ­Education Association, helps new cities launch urban-squash ­programs and share ideas, and coordinates camps and tournaments around the country. “It’s helped a lot of kids get into great colleges and learn about what they can achieve in the world,” summarizes Zaff. And it’s “made a lot of people very proud of the sport.”

The program recently added a branch in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and is ­looking next at Providence, Rhode Island. It takes about $400,000 per year to run a new program for 75 students. The greater-Boston chapter currently has a budget of $1 million a year to serve 139 students and 58 alumni in college.

“Urban kids really love this,” states Zaff, “not because there’s some special zing to squash but because we are there for them all the time. It’s a very positive, supportive place that helps them set goals and become successful, make great friends, and see the world.”

The mother of one participant tells me that “they care for the parents, too. Last year I lost my twin to a hit-and-run accident. The whole crew came to support me. What they say they stand for is what they do. Any child who walks in here and says he wants to improve his life, change, and be responsible—they are here to teach them the way.”