By Bill Burt
---- — Lawrence has basketball, baseball, soccer and football programs in place to hopefully give boys and girls something to do, teach a little teamwork and possibly inspire them to take that passion to other areas of their lives.
Well, thanks to some prodding from a few Andover residents, there’s a new youth sport in town, one that might surprise most, if not all, of its residents:
That’s right, squash, the sport of kings, or at the very least the sport of elite prep schools and colleges in the country.
The same sport Forbes Magazine tabbed as “the healthiest sport” to play a decade ago.
In fact, the “Ivy League” sport is not only here, but after a $250,000 fundraiser a few weeks ago in North Andover for the SquashBusters Program, it appears to be setting roots for a long time coming.
SquashBusters was founded in 1996 as the first after-school program of its kind in the U.S. — combining squash, academics and community service. The organization’s aim was to serve students from Boston and Cambridge public schools through the “most crucial years” of their development, with the goals of building strong personal character, pushing students to matriculate to and graduate from college and improving the overall physical and emotional health of youths.
SquashBusters is under the growing umbrella of the National Urban Squash and Education Association, with similar programs in Harlem, Newark, Bronx, Philadelphia, New Haven, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Denver and in a handful of California cities.
Three summers ago, Phillips Andover squash coach Tom Hodgson was visiting SquashBusters founder Greg Zaff at their alma mater, Williams College in Williamstown, and they began talking about the program.
“We were talking about the need for additional afternoon programming for kids in Lawrence,” Hodgson said. “We talked about the opportunity to put our students (from Andover) and the area squash community in contact with our neighbors in Lawrence. It was exciting.”
Hodgson passed the word along to two of his squash pals from Andover, Ross Elkin and Ed Krapels.
A dream soon became a reality.
“I was aware of SquashBusters in Boston,” Elkin said. “Then a core group of us — including Tom, Ed, Bruce Landay, Henry White, Doug Burbank and I — began investigating what would be required to start a program.
“It turns out that, coincidently, SquashBusters Boston was thinking about expanding to a second location, and Lawrence was one of the places they had thought about. We realized quickly that there was no need for us to try to reinvent the wheel, and when SquashBusters said that they would commit to starting a program in Lawrence, we agreed to put our support behind that effort.”
That support wasn’t just dollars, but time.
SquashBusters’ mission statement is this: To challenge and nurture urban youth — as students, athletes and citizens — so that they recognize and fulfill their fullest potential in life.
“When we started to introduce squash in Lawrence it was the fall of 2012 and we went into the Wetherbee and Arlington (middle) schools,” SquashBusters Lawrence director Dora Lubin said. “We brought a bunch of racquets and the kids would hit the balls around in the gym. It was a little chaotic.
“And then when we had sign-ups for this fall, I had visions that we were going to get only 10 kids. But 150 boys and girls signed up. We eventually took 24 kids from each school. It has surpassed all of our expectations.”
The key element in all of this, though, was getting the area’s two top prep schools, Phillips Andover and Brooks School, to sign on.
Both did. Emphatically.
“We are so lucky to have such great schools with top-notch facilities,” Elkin said. “It couldn’t be any better. Andover and Brooks have been incredible partners.”
Boys and girls in the SquashBusters Program get 60 to 90 minutes of academic help and then 60 to 90 minutes of squash instruction three days a week from September to June. The Arlington Middle School students are scheduled to attend Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday while the Wetherbee School students go Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
The 48 participating children are picked up at their schools between 2:20 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. and they are back in Lawrence by about 6:30 p.m.
The Saturday schedule is simply two hours of squash, with the two schools coming together to play.
In other words, this is the real deal.
“I had run into a number of SquashBusters kids at youth tournaments that my son, Seve (a Brooks School student), had played,” Elkin said. “I was always impressed by the way they conducted themselves. To be blunt, it’s not the easiest thing for a bunch of kids from inner-city Boston to move comfortably in the Wellesley/Weston-Mercedes/BMW-private school world of squash, and yet the SquashBusters’ kids did just that.
“I love the intensive, long-term approach that the program takes. They ask the students to make a seven-year commitment and to work for everything they get — in the classroom, on the court and in the community. That’s extraordinary.”
The Lawrence kids have reaped many benefits in about 16 months, including traveling to tournaments at some elite colleges in New England while rubbing elbows and competing against their peers.
“I’ve been to Harvard, Yale and Williams (College) for tournaments,” said Phoenix Almonte, 12, a seventh-grader at the Wetherbee School. “They are amazing places. I would love to go to Harvard some day. I want to be a doctor. And maybe I could play squash there, too. I’m pretty good.”
In fact, Almonte’s most memorable experience as a SquashBusters member was his overnight trip to play a tournament at Williams College.
“It was so cool staying in the dorms and seeing the incredible campus,” Almonte recalled. “I also loved the buffet meals. I got to eat as much as I wanted every meal. It was great.”
You can email Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tournament raises $250K
The recent “MashUp” squash competition at Brooks School in North Andover helped net $250,000 for the SquashBusters Lawrence Program.
The competition consisted of four teams, each comprised of a world-class player, five amateurs, a student from Brooks School or Phillips Academy and a SquashBusters student.
Each of the amateur players raised money to participate. The teams battled in a round-robin format with the two top finishers playing in the finals for all the marbles. Andover’s Ross Elkin, Ed Krapels and Tom Hodgson were among the competitors.
Originally, the hope was to raise $100,000. But with a special matching grant of $75,000, the event raised more than double the expectations. All of the proceeds will directly benefit SquashBusters Lawrence and its 48 students.
For more information about SquashBusters, visit www.squashbusters.org.
Andover MashUp players
Andover Academics team
Lawrence Legion team
Essex County Nicks
Merrimack Volley team