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One decade in, nonprofit Racquet Up Detroit using squash to enrich urban students

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

Detroit — When Alani Smith was younger, she said she didn’t have much use for school — with a 1.3 grade-point average to prove it.

Now a standout sophomore student at Detroit Renaissance High School, the 16-year-old visited five prestigious colleges last week with a trip to Yale up next.

Kiana Simpson, 10, hits a shot while on the squash court with instructor Emma Head as part of the Racquet Up Detroit program at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit.

A main cog in her success story is the sport of squash, her reason for traveling to the Connecticut Ivy League school on March 6-8.

“When I was younger, I was one of those kids that didn’t really care about school and my future or whatever, but coming to Racquet Up every day, they disciplined me,” Smith said. “They made it clear to me how important it is for me to be on a good path.”

Smith is one of 110 Detroit youths fifth grade and older in the nonprofit Racquet Up Detroit urban squash education program, which is celebrating 10 years of stories like Smith’s this year.

Launched in January 2011, Racquet Up is held at the city’s Northwest Activities Center, an unlikely hub for the sport — think racquetball with less bounce and typically more of a country club feel.

Derek Aguirre, the Racquet Up Detroit executive director, has helped bring the sport to Northwest Detroit with overwhelming success.

For example, there are the five Racquet Up alums who are playing squash for college programs. But more importantly, there are 22 total college students from the program’s first two classes of graduates — a 100% success rate.

“If you do what you say you’re going to do, follow-through, communicate with the families, there’s no limit to what these kids can achieve,” said Aguirre, a Standish native. “You just see that. Academically, athletically, and their commitment to the program is totally inspiring.”

The free program — which has partnered with neighboring schools Schulze Academy, MacDowell Preparatory Academy, Detroit Achievement Academy and University Yes Academy for applicants and then host a tryout for the program — includes three after-school sessions weekly for each child. A typical three-hour session includes at least half the time on homework help or enrichment and then squash practice on the courts.

Racquet Up is taking the Detroit students all over, including events in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toronto and Windsor.

Last week, 13 students drove on a college tour to Washington, D.C. and back, visiting George Washington, Howard, Pennsylvania, Dickinson and Chatham along the way.

This weekend is the Squash and Education Alliance Team Nationals at Yale, where 15 players on three teams will represent Detroit against teams from the 19 other organizations nationwide in the network.

It was at a similar event in 2018 where Racquet Up won a national title, as six Detroiters won the boys under-19 title at the National Urban Squash Team Championships in Harlem.

One of those boys was Antwan Ramsey, who now works as a trainer and coach for younger Racquet Up players while he attends Wayne County Community College.

“You go from not knowing each other, to a community, to a team, to a family. That’s how it goes,” Ramsey said. “You come here, you become family with each other, you come that close to each other.”

Ramsey would know, as one of five siblings to take part in the program, including older sister, Starnisha, who plays squash at St. Lawrence University in New York; and younger sister, Antoinette, a national winner in 2017 at the Bronze Junior National Championships in Stamford, Connecticut.

Aguirre said alums like Antwan Ramsey, who plans to attend a four-year college starting next year, are what will help Racquet Up go to the next level.

“I think this thing will only get better and better,” Aguirre said. “Antwan will work here full time one day, so will a lot of his teammates. They’ll be the real mentors and inspiring leaders for the next generation, and they’ll have that bond. They’ll say I went to the same school you did, I started right where you did. It’s a powerful message.”

After graduating from Michigan, Aguirre worked for six years at SquashBusters in Boston. When he went to Harvard for business school, he realized a similar program could work in Detroit, a city he became connected to through various volunteer programs as an undergrad.

Volunteer Katharine Smyth helps out Khalif Edwards, 11, as he preps for a class before heading to the squash court.

While Aguirre wasn’t sure he’d be back, Jessica Reed knew she would.

After graduating from Stanford, the 26-year-old says now that coming back to Detroit always was the plan, paying it forward to programs that aided her upbringing, such as Math Corps at Wayne State and the Midnight Golf Program while she was a senior at Renaissance.

Reed is in her fifth year as education director at Racquet Up, guiding the younger children through homework help and literacy enrichment, and adding a college prep focus for high school students.

“I thought it was a little bit unique with the squash component, I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” said Reed, who has tried the game, but said she doesn’t excel at it. “But I really appreciated the mission of the program and also just the opportunity to work with kids in a program. 

“And I loved how it was long term, so you need to build relationships with kids, year after year, that really stuck out to me.”

The program benefits from more than 700 donors, Aguirre said, a broad base of individuals, foundations and corporations.

Aguirre said support originated through the Detroit squash community and has grown from there.

Still, members and initiatives from the Detroit Athletic Club and Birmingham Athletic Club continue to support Racquet Up.

The Birmingham Athletic Club hosts a professional squash event, the Motor City Open, each year, and earlier this month, MCO organizers announced $12,000 was raised for their annual donation to the program. Through the years, the event has raised $250,000 for the program, tournament chairman Derrick J. Glencer said.

With Racquet Up turning a decade old, it’s cause for celebration. A 10-year anniversary event is planned at the Guardian Building downtown on May 15-16.

There, Racquet Up will construct a glass squash court in the building’s promenade for professional exhibitions for children, much like is done for professional squash tournaments in New York at Grand Central Station and in Egypt at the Great Pyramid of Giza.

An anniversary celebration will close the weekend, which Aguirre said also will focus on how to get to 25 and 50 years, along with discussion of future endeavors such as the program’s own facility.

“It’s mostly to mark the moment,” Aguirre said. “A lot of non-profits don’t get through the decade mark, but we want to make sure that everyone gets to enjoy the fact that through the many hundreds of supporters, this has happened, and we’ve got a bright future.”

Racquet Up Detroit

To learn more about Racquet Up Detroit, including how to donate, visit racquetup.org.

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.