Urban Squash Cleveland: More Than Just a Sport

May 31, 2017

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- When Jaden Solomon, 13, a seventh grader at Cleveland's Urban Community School, told his uncle that he was joining an after-school squash program, his uncle asked: "Do they provide the zucchini or do you have to get your own?"

Groan. Not that kind of squash.

Mohammed Mohammed, 13, admits, "I didn't even know what they were talking about. Squash. I didn't know what squash was."

And Jaliya Reyes, 11, had just one response when classmates talked about playing the sport of squash. "I'm like, what?"

And yet here each of them was after school one day last week, racquet in hand, goggles strapped tight, staking claim to the T - the optimal position on the squash court - nailing crosscourts and counterdrops and winning volleys with the occasional kill shot.

"When I started, I wasn't able to even hit the ball. I threw it up and I'd swing all over the place," said 12-year-old Kiki Perez, an Urban Community sixth grader who wallops the ball now.

Kids from Cleveland's poorest neighborhood are being recruited to play the blue blood sport of squash?  As Reyes said:  "Like, what?"

"Squash is just the vehicle," said former squash pro Iago Cornes, a native of Spain, who spends time with students each day as executive director of an organization called Urban Squash Cleveland.

The group, founded in 2010, is one of 23 such organizations in urban centers nationwide accredited by the National Urban Squash and Education Association. It recruits students from Urban Community School, Entrepreneurship Preparatory School and the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine on the John Hay campus. Most are from low-income backgrounds.

After an initial trial period, they and their families commit to daily after school sessions that combine academics and squash training, summer camps, trips for tournaments and exhibitions. And at least ten hours of community service. And they commit until they graduate from high school, often starting as early as fifth grade.

They pay nothing. The organization's 14-member board is big on fundraising and covers equipment, transportation, training and whatever else the students need.

They're investing in success: 97 percent of students who complete these programs, according to the Squash and Education Association, graduate from high school and move on to college. Scholarships are plentiful.

In Cleveland, the 45 squash kids gather in classrooms and squash courts at Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University six days a week. They do homework together, with help available if they need it, work on entrepreneurial projects, and learn squash.

Soon they'll have their own, new, state-of-the-art squash facility on Lorain Ave. on Cleveland's near West Side. Urban Squash Cleveland plans a $3 million facility on the campus of Urban Community School - where a car lot now leases the land -- and fundraising for the project is well underway. There will be four courts and two classrooms.

The hope is that Urban Squash Cleveland's enrollment can more than double to 100 students.

Still, why squash?

"You have to be willing to be 100 percent responsible every second on the court. It embodies so many things that are important in life, it's unreal," said Cornes.

In addition to the school-year programming, there's a month-long summer camp, six hours each weekday. And there are tons of travel opportunities, usually to college campuses. That part is big, boosters say, because it exposes these kids to college. It inspires hope that education is in their future, even if no one in their family has ever gone to college.

A quiet fundraising campaign has already raised half the capital needed for the new squash facility. Some time in the fall, the campaign will go public.

Urban Community School will own the facility and can use its classrooms during the school day, as well as the four squash courts for indoor recess during inclement weather.  Half of the Urban Squash Cleveland slots will belong to Urban Community kids.

"It's a game changer," said Urban Community School Associate Director Tom Gill, who noted that the school also will become a center for youth lacrosse when Maryland-based U.S. Lacrosse refurbishes a craggy 7,500 square foot lot on the campus to be used as a regional youth lacrosse center. And the school also has partnered with the "The Foundry," an indoor rowing facility, so that its students can be immersed in that sport, too.

"This is really about youth development and we are committed to the whole child approach and to the physical, social, emotional, spiritual and academic development of a child and you can't do all of that in a classroom during the school day," he said.

During a recent afternoon Urban Squash Cleveland session at CSU, half the students took squash instruction on the courts from coaches Mark Kauf-Lindsay, who captained the squash teams at University School and Drexel University in Philadelphia, and intern Wick Ballard. The rest snacked on fresh fruit and got homework help in a nearby classroom from Program Director Liz Hiros. After an hour or so, they switched.

"I like the classroom part the best because this gives us a lot of time to do our homework and also they'll give us projects to do," said Solomon, the seventh grader, who was musing about building a time machine for an entrepreneurial project.

"The time machine is bogus science," replied his friend Dashiell Tidrick, 13, an Urban Community eighth grader.  "It's impossible. You can't time travel without creating a paradox. It's impossible!"

Zoey Mitchell, 11, an E Prep fifth grader who will soon head to Michigan for a two-week squash summer camp, said without it, after school hours, and the summer months, would be bleak.

"If it wasn't for squash," she said, "I'd be at home now doing nothing."

- Michael K. McIntyre from,