Up Against the Wall

The game’s the stuff of private clubs and Ivy League locker rooms. Can Cincinnati Squash Academy’s big dreams change lives for OTR’s littlest athletes?

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

On a brisk evening last November, a hundred guests, warmed by drink and noblesse oblige, sipped their wine and micro-brews and listened as Peg Wyant explained how their support could transform the lives of inner-city youth. The event was the grand opening of the nonprofit Cincinnati Squash Academy in Over-the-Rhine and the setting was the Emanuel Community Center’s old gymnasium, dramatically remodeled to accommodate three freshly-lacquered, competition-standard courts and the lofty aspirations of the academy’s cofounder.

The fresh faces at the Emanuel Community Center in OTR belong to the city's first urban squashers.
The fresh faces at the Emanuel Community Center in OTR belong to the city’s first urban squashers.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Wyant, whose company, Grandin Properties, bought the 144-year-old Emanuel Center building on Race Street, was hostess for the night as well as being the visionary behind the building’s new life. Among the dignitaries was a fifth grader from St. Joseph School in the West End, Ti’Asia Boner, who stood quietly beside the podium on Court 1, beaming like CSA’s poster child through her kaleidoscope-green eyeglasses. Ti’Asia is one of the students who, given the right combination of talent, perseverance, and support, could become the city’s first wave of “urban squashers.”

“Squash is a fun game that requires a work ethic, intellect, and a never-give-up attitude,” Wyant, a regular on the Cincinnati Country Club courts, told the gathered donors and friends. “Because if you keep working, keep grinding, you can almost always reach the ball.”

Sport as a metaphor for achievement is nothing new. Neither is the notion of using athletics to help at-risk kids succeed. But squash? In OTR? As a reporter for The New York Times wrote when programs popped up in the Bronx and Harlem over a decade ago: “At first blush, squash, with its whiff of the prep school and the country club, might seem a strange choice for enrichment programs for adolescents from some of New York City’s poorest schools.” But urban squash has worked there and in more than a dozen other U.S. cities. Wyant believes it will work here, too.

Wyant’s four children learned the game at their country club, and they learned it exceedingly well. All were Ivy League players: Jack and Missy, All-Americans at Princeton; Tim, a four-time All-American at Harvard; Chris, an MVP for Yale. Her brood got bigger last fall with the opening of CSA. The first year was an extended selection process—call it a long rally—to recruit, try out, and consistently engage kids in the demands of a year-round regimen of practice, academics, mentoring, community service, and cultural enrichment that concludes, in a perfect world, with college graduation. This fall there are 35 elementary-age students committed to the rigors of the court and classroom, and CSA will soon be back in schools looking for more.

CSA's academic director Rachael Parker believes the quality of a child's education "shouldn't be based on a family's ZIP code."
CSA’s academic director Rachael Parker believes the quality of a child’s education “shouldn’t be based on a family’s ZIP code.”

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

CSA’s goal, according to its mission statement, is to “transform talented students in under-served communities into scholar-athletes, productive citizens, and future leaders with character.” In squash, when you retrieve a difficult shot, it’s a “nice get.” Maybe that’s the simplest way of explaining what CSA is out to achieve—“nice gets” in neighborhoods where too many children are missing the ball.

Wyant’s real estate management firm acquired the Emanuel Center facility in November 2012, just weeks after the financially-challenged nonprofit that had occupied it shuttered the historic building. She and her son Tim had searched for 10 years for a place to launch a program in Cincinnati. Since 2012, Tim Wyant has been executive director of the National Urban Squash + Education Association (NUSEA). Before that, he spent a decade as executive director of CitySquash in the Bronx, where a graduate became the first urban squash product to play at an Ivy League school—Cornell—and the first All-American from an urban squash program. Through Tim’s work, Wyant says, “I’ve seen the journeys some of his kids have taken. I always thought this would be an exciting opportunity for our family to share the game that we all play and love and that’s been very, very beneficial to us.”

CSA occupies 9,300 square feet (about a third of the space) in the renovated Emanuel Center, which was built in 1871 as a settlement house for German immigrants. Until its sudden closing in 2012, it housed a daycare program and provided recreational, educational, and social services to inner-city neighbors. Today the new tenants include OTR entrepreneurs and the officers of Grandin Properties, whose CEO can keep tabs on the academy’s progeny from her upstairs offices.

Wyant stays plugged-in, as well, to CSA’s young, spirited staff. Executive Director Austin Schiff is 25, as is Academic Director and Education Liason Rachael Parker. Squash Director Vir Seth is 24. Over the past year, the trio may have covered the equivalent of a marathon, escorting students from their schools to the center each week, since CSA does not provide transportation. “We walked quite a bit,” says Schiff. “Through snow, sleet, sub-zero temperatures, torrential rain. . . .” It was a trip many of the kids made for nine months before they even received their certificates of enrollment.

The after-school slog and the staff’s relentless attendance-tracking helped weed out the less-than-committed kids. There were home visits, too, and open houses for parents—the majority of them single mothers—as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives charged with raising the neighborhood kids. Schiff sums up the year with two words: “long” and “interesting.”

In his remarks at the grand opening, Schiff promised that CSA would “select the best of the best” from neighborhood schools—public, Catholic, and charter. But, as the St. Xavier High/Vanderbilt U. grad discovered, tempting children with a sport that most of them (and their families) had never heard of proved difficult. Some elementary schools CSA hoped to work with didn’t pan out, and the attempt to enroll teenagers was a demoralizing failure. Schiff visited with seventh- and eighth-graders at Cincinnati Public Schools’s heralded Taft Information Technology High School, making a pitch for the new, exotic sports program just a short walk from Taft’s Ezzard Charles Drive location. Afterward, he and others from CSA waited outside the school to accompany interested students to the Emanuel Center. No one showed up.

“My stomach dropped,” Schiff says. “We had everything ready for our first practice. Then, not a single student comes out.”

Ultimately, the staff found success with younger kids—attracting 127 third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders from St. Joseph School, Hays-Porter Elementary, and Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy’s Otto Armleder Education Center on West Ninth Street downtown.

“My first thought was, this is a big dream and a lot of work,” says Pamela Bailey, executive assistant to the principal at CHCA. “I believed they would make it happen but maybe five years down the road, not in such a short period of time.” The response at CHCA, she says, has been “beyond what I expected.”

The disappointment at Taft, though, was an early lesson in how differently things work—or don’t work—in Cincinnati. “You don’t think about it, but there’s a social stigma with the older kids,” says Schiff, who played for and coached Vanderbilt’s club team. “We’re not basketball. We’re not football. You don’t see squash players on TV or driving around town in cool cars. It’s a very different culture.”

OTR is a different culture, too, as Vir Seth, the squash coach and math specialist, discovered early on. Seth, who began playing the game as a youngster in India, attended boarding school in Massachusetts, where he competed against players from urban squash programs. Four of his teammates at St. Lawrence University in New York were urban squashers. “In Boston and New York City”—two cities with flourishing programs—“you have large immigrant populations,” he notes. “There’s a mind-set that says, ‘We’ve risked our lives to come to the U.S. to provide a better life for our kids.’ Here you’ve just had generations of poverty”—along with a shifting demographic, from Appalachian to pre-dominantly African-American. “We might seem like other programs that have come and gone without an impact on people’s lives.”

Tim Wyant knows this sport isn’t a slam-dunk in every beleaguered neighborhood, although his New York-based organization, NUSEA, now has 18 member programs in the U.S. and affiliates in Canada, Colombia, India, and South Africa. “It’s harder in the beginning, for sure,” he says. “When we go into a classroom, we ask kids three questions. Who likes to play sports? Who likes to travel? Who wants to go to college? That’s what we’re really tapping into—the desire to do those things.”

Tim could cite, as evidence, NUSEA’s list of over 180 colleges and universities—among them Baldwin Wallace, Denison, and Oberlin in Ohio—that have enrolled urban squash graduates since 1995. And headlines from a recent newsletter are telling as well: “Students Meet Governors, Senators, and Congressmen on 1st NUSEA Citizenship Tour”… “64 Players Compete at 2nd Annual Alumni Nationals in Boston”… “10 Urban Squashers Study at Exeter Summer School.”

Some NUSEA programs do more traveling with their students; some bring in high-level coaches. Tim’s former organization in the Bronx aggressively pursues prep school placements for their kids. “The most important thing, by far, is that the program be high quality in every way,” he says. “And that the kids and their families understand this is a significant life commitment.”

April Moorman laughs as she recalls the first words out of her mouth after reading the flyer her daughter Olivia brought home from school. “I said, ‘Squash? What the heck is that?’ I had to look it up.”

Moorman is a volunteer coordinator at Freestore Foodbank and a single mom raising two children in the West End. She moved to Cincinnati in 2008 from Owensboro, Kentucky. “I moved sort of late in the day,” she says, “but this is why I came to the city, to give my kids this kind of opportunity that they couldn’t have in my hometown.”

In January, her daughter Olivia, a fifth-grader at St. Joseph, received an orange CSA T-shirt and beanie as one of 14 kids granted “Silver Status,” a step away from “Gold Status”—i.e. permanent enrollment in the academy, and a place on a “team” that would demand academic participation as well as intensive practice and competition. Since September, Olivia had diligently attended tryouts with other St. Joseph students on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. This months-long “try-out” wasn’t simply to assess each child’s skills and commitment; families were put to the test, too. After-school sessions were two hours long, split between CSA’s one-room Learning Center and the courts. Moorman says she picked up her daughter at 6:45, then “it was a quick dash to get something to eat, homework, and pretty much bedtime.”

Another hopeful who made the cut was Ti’Asia Boner, whose smile lit up November’s opening ceremony. Like Olivia, Ti’Asia stuck with it through the fall. So did her mother, LaSheena Boner, a single parent, who had her own busy schedule to juggle, working in home health care and pursuing an associate degree in business at Chatfield College’s Findlay Market campus. “I’m pushing college for Ti’Asia,” she replies, when asked why she encouraged her 10-year-old daughter to stay with the program after some of Ti’Asia’s friends drifted away. “For Mr. Schiff and the others to be with her the whole way, I’m so up for that.”

So, too, is Millicent Lane, a UC Health employee whose daughter Madison will be a fourth-grader at CHCA this fall. “I like the expectations the staff has laid out for her and the other kids,” Lane says. “And I like the idea that this is a pathway to college if they stay committed to it.”

Madison didn’t have to walk to her Monday and Wednesday tryouts—CHCA has a bus to transport students to the Emanuel Center and return them to the Otto Armleder campus for pick-up. Lane says her daughter did give up some activities, however, not wanting to miss any practices. “It sort of surprised me because she didn’t know anything more about squash than I did.”

Not every fall recruit made it to T-shirt-and-beanie day. Some were cut because of poor attendance or what Schiff termed “iffy” behavior. Some simply failed to take a liking to the game. Attrition is a given, says Tim Wyant. Programs typically recruit more kids than they know they can serve because about half will end up being dismissed or will leave. And that doesn’t even account for the ones who struggled to get to CSA in last winter’s bitter cold.

“We’re still learning what this world in Over-the-Rhine is really like,” says Peg Wyant, sitting in her conference room overlooking Washington Park and Music Hall. “I will admit, the hill is steeper than I ever imagined.”

It’s January and she has just returned from a weekend in New York City, where NUSEA board members, staff, students, and alumni from programs around the country celebrated the 20th anniversary of urban squash and a successful $2 million fund-raising campaign. The 800 guests attending the Saturday night gala in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel—an event Bloomberg News headlined “Inner City Squash Gets Wall Street Backing”—also received a heavy dose of inspiration. One of the speakers was Reyna Pacheco. Her mother fled their home in Mexico, and Pacheco grew up in San Diego, a poor, illegal immigrant sleeping on floors and sofas. Today, the 4-foot-11 Pacheco, who started to play in the eighth grade, is a senior on the women’s team at Columbia University and a Gates Millennium Scholar.

“That’s what we want our story to be,” says Wyant. And in spite of the academy’s struggles to get kids enrolled and keep them coming, she has faith CSA will get there. “And that it’s a totally worthwhile journey,” she adds.

Many of the city’s deep pockets seem to agree. Support from United Way, along with donations from Western & Southern and Reds owner Bob Castellini (who’s an honorary board member, as is W&S chairman John Barrett) helped kick-start fund-raising. CSA’s list of major donors is a Who’s Who of local family foundations—Nippert, Smale, Schott, Schiff, Castellini, among them. With a generous first-year budget of $300,000 and another two years of operating capital in the bank, “we’re in a good place,” reports Wyant.

In April, the academy held its first CSA Cup, an annual fund-raiser with a silent auction and four teams of supporters playing squash against each other. The auction’s big ticket item: a “24-hour Driving Experience” with a Tesla Model S. The big attraction on the courts: former Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones, who serves on CSA’s board of directors. Jones pursued his opponent’s shots like he was chasing after ballcarriers on Super Bowl Sunday.

“The goal,” said fellow board member Harrison Mullin of MVC Capital, who spent his years at Trinity College with a racquet in his hand, “is that all of us will be active—not just in terms of our leadership, guidance, and financial support, but in actual time here at the center with the kids.” Once a squasher, always a squasher.

Urban squash originated in Boston in 1995 with SquashBusters, an organization today serving 275 teens and college-age students. It operates with a staff of 20 and a $2 million annual budget. So, if you’re starting a program, who you gonna call? Well, you might begin with SquashBusters founder and CEO Greg Zaff, a former touring pro and Williams College All-American.

Zaff started with 24 middle school students, holding practices at the YMCA of Greater Boston, Harvard University, and the Harvard Club, where the elitists, if you will, opened the doors of their private institution with its wood-paneled walls, plush carpets, and snacks in the locker room. (The StreetSquash director, George Polsky, told the Times that the Harvard Club in New York City “freaked out” his Harlem kids at first. “There were animal heads on the wall,” he said, “and white people.”)

“There is a social confidence and ruggedness a person needs to have to build this kind of program and make it flourish,” Zaff says, speaking by phone from the SquashBusters youth center on the Northeastern University campus. “It’s not like most jobs with walls, where you’re compartmentalized and protected by the organization that has come along before you. This is heading out to the frontier with a racquet, not knowing what’s going to come at you.”

When CSA’s fledgling staff rounded up their racquets, flyers, videos, and PowerPoints and headed out to the OTR frontier last fall, they may not have known exactly what to expect. But their social confidence and ruggedness had already been put to the test. Schiff and Parker are Teach For America alumni. Seth was a college intern at StreetSquash in Harlem.

“The two most trying years of my life,” Schiff says of his TFA assignment, teaching algebra to kids in a failing high school in Greenwood, Mississippi, where some of his students didn’t know their multiplication tables (and—worse—didn’t care). The son of an Indian Hill pediatrician, he now finds himself in the role of Pied Piper for kids from Cincinnati’s inner city, taking them on the uphill trek “to and through” college.

“Saying 100 percent of our kids are going to go to Harvard or the Ivy League, or that they’re all going to get academic scholarships or play college squash, that’s unrealistic,” he says. “If we can improve their path, if we can make a difference in their lives one way or another, we will have succeeded.”

Unlike her cohorts, Rachael Parker is not a player. The Maysville, Kentucky, native is here because she’s passionate about education. “I believe it is the social justice issue of my generation,” she says. Parker’s roots are Appalachian, and like every student at her alma mater, Berea College, she went to school for four years tuition-free. “While I was there, I formed a lot of ideas about issues in the working world and educational equity. The kind of education a student receives shouldn’t be based on the family’s ZIP code.”

Her TFA assignment took her to the Cincinnati Speech & Reading Academy, a charter school on Central Parkway. “I’ve been in the trenches,” she says. “You learn quickly, everyone has a hand in everything. You have to be a team player.”

Parker is the academy’s data tracker, collecting biographical information on the students, grades from their report cards, scores on diagnostic tests—anything that will be helpful as the staff attempts to identify kids who could benefit from academic support outside the home and their regular classrooms.

And that doesn’t mean just the kids who are struggling to perform. Seth, for example, is holding a workshop on Friday afternoons for a small group of students who have demonstrated an aptitude in math. “We want to give them extra practice and strengthen their foundation,” he says. And even though an Ivy League education isn’t being held up as the gold standard, it’s not far from mind. The math enrichment, notes Seth, is “good, too, if we want to send some of these kids to prep schools in the ninth grade.”

Last November, I tagged along with the staff as they ushered fourth- and fifth-graders from Hays-Porter to tryouts at CSA. Of the three partner schools, the West End elementary’s students are, by the government’s definition, the most impoverished. The number qualifying for the federal free and reduced lunch program is well above the 70 percent CSA has established as a minimum in targeting schools for partnership.

After Hays-Porter let out, the 10 academy recruits (boys and girls) frolicked their way up Ezzard Charles Drive, coats flying open as they walked through the parking lot beside Music Hall and across Washington Park to the Emanuel Center. When, at the entrance, Schiff held up his hand, everyone was still. We walked quietly, single file, through the orange doors and paused in front of the Jasper Johns print on the wall outside the girls’ locker room so the students could slip out of their backpacks and pull out homework, if they had any, to take to the classroom.

Posters line the hallway to the Learning Center. One is a quotation from a 1922 Emanuel Center building campaign: “If a city is to be lifted, every part of it must be lifted.” Another reminds students of the Golden Rules of Squash:

Give your opponent the respect and honor of trying as hard as you can on every point

Never take a point your opponent feels you don’t deserve

Conduct yourself during the match as though you were having an interview afterwards

Look and dress the part and have the body language of a champion

Remember that long after the trophy tarnishes, what remains is your reputation


The Learning Center has posted rules as well:

Respect all people and property

Listen attentively

Follow directions

Always do your best

With Parker, the students sat around tables doing their homework for 30 minutes and then retreated to “College Corner”—a rug on the floor—where for the next half hour she read them a book about Wilma Rudolph’s struggle to overcome polio as a child and they wrote their answers to questions testing their comprehension of the Olympic gold medal sprinter’s inspirational story.

Upstairs on the new courts at the Emanuel Center, the Hays-Porter kids laced up their Payless sneakers, put on safety goggles, and grabbed racquets. “It’s important that they are holding the racquet correctly on the first day,” said Seth. “The grip is something I really emphasize. We work on forehands, backhands. Some of these kids have now started hitting rallies.” One fourth-grader, exceedingly pleased with himself, wanted to brag about the number of times he could hit the ball against the front wall without dropping the volley with Seth.

Afterward there were jumping jacks, leapfrogs, relay races, and sprints. “Seventy-five percent of our time is spent on squash and 25 percent on fitness,” Seth said. Then the session ended as it began, with Schiff standing watch at the back door of the Emanuel Center. Some waited to be picked up by family members. Those who had permission walked home through the gentrifying-but-not-entirely-transformed neighborhood in the fading afternoon.

Three Hays-Porter students would achieve Gold Status, joining 15 from St. Joseph (including Ti’Asia and Olivia) and 14 from CHCA (including Madison). Thirteen of the new enrollees are fourth graders this fall, nine are fifth graders, and 10 are sixth graders. Girls outnumber boys, 19 to 13.

The enrollment ceremony was held on Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend. No practice, just hugs all around. Schiff welcomed the families who gathered outside in the Emanuel Center’s courtyard. “So you’ve been here for Silver Status. You’re here now for Gold Status. You’re probably thinking, How many more of these ‘statuses’ are we going to have?” he joked. Turning to address the students, he said, “What this means today is that we are officially enrolling this group of 32 not only into the Cincinnati Squash Academy, but all of urban squash. This is a huge deal for us. We’re here to stand by you and your families.”

Seth announced that as many as 15 students would be traveling to Kenyon College in July to compete in the Midwest Urban Championships—students who a year ago had never held a racquet and had to be persuaded, as Schiff recalled, that “squash was not a vegetable or what you do to a cockroach running across the floor.” Parker handed out the June summer camp calendar, with 18 days of practice, a Cincinnati Country Club scrimmage, YMCA camp in Michigan for two students, and a Reds game for everyone.

In addition to a certificate, each student received an orange cinch bag and water bottle. Olivia showed her certificate to her mother, asking if she could put it up on the refrigerator door with her other school awards. “Of course you can,” replied April Moorman.

As the enrollees stepped forward to be recognized, there were cell phone snapshots and shout-outs, the loudest coming from a mother who exhorted everyone to “Give it up for these kids! This is accomplishment!”

It was an event much like any other end-of-the-year sports recognition day. But perhaps what made it different from a Pee-Wee Football banquet or a soccer awards picnic was this: Everyone here seemed to know they were part of something bigger.

They’d learned to love squash, yes. But they’d also learned that, as Tim Wyant says, “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that it’s squash.”

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