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Urban youth program combines athletics, academics, community service

Several dozen Boston Public School students are running sprints, studying and periodically erupting in laughter. It’s “Fitness Friday” at SquashBusters, an after-school urban youth development program at Northeastern University.

The seven-year, community-focused program currently serves more than 100 students from the Gavin, Timilty and Dearborn middle schools in South Boston and Roxbury, in addition to those from nine Boston public high schools. SquashBusters also provides support to 22 of the program’s alumni currently attending prep schools and colleges.

The SquashBusters schedule includes squash lessons, academic tutoring, community service and cultural activities and aims to teach students the importance of integrity, concern for others, appreciation, respect and effort. Students participate in local and national squash tournaments, engage in community service projects with organizations such as the Greater Boston Food Bank and the Boston Harbor Association, and immerse themselves in study abroad opportunities in countries such as Brazil, Ghana and South Africa to help with humanitarian projects and develop an appreciation for other nations’ cultures.

Touted as the “first enrichment program of its kind in the United States,” it has been successful for those who complete the program: 100 percent of SquashBusters participants graduate from high school, according to SquashBusters literature.

“The effectiveness of this program is directly related to our ability to build deep, long-lasting relationships with our students and families,” said Teresa Soares-Pena, the executive director of SquashBusters.

“I love the familial sense I get at SquashBusters,”added Ronald German, a high school senior who has participated in the program since eighth grade and will attend Hamilton College in the fall. “It’s almost like a second home.”

With the help of more than 100 volunteers, some of them Northeastern students, SquashBusters staff provides classes and activities that reinforce and go beyond formal instruction. For example, students recently completed a class that included a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Dr. Carroll Blake, principal of the Dearborn Middle School and a Northeastern alumnus, said that his teachers work in conjunction with SquashBusters staff to monitor students’ progress in school and plan support as needed.

Through participation inthe program, Blake said his students learn that “anything is attainable…students find that there’s not a challenge that can’t be accomplished,” he said.

SquashBusters grew out of squash champion and program founder Greg Zaff’s passion for public service and his desire to “make a life-changing impact on Boston kids,” he said. Zaff is now executive director of the National Urban Squash and Education Association.

Since finding a home at Northeastern in 2003, SquashBusters, which has a 100-year lease on the property on Columbus Avenue in Roxbury Crossing, has served as a model for other urban squash programs in Harlem, the Bronx, New Haven, Philadelphia, San Diego, Chicago, Baltimore and Denver.

Without Northeastern’s interest in housing the youth center, Zaff said the others would not exist. “I can’t begin to say how appreciative I am of Northeastern,” he said. “SquashBusters is a testament to how committed the University is to the community, to partnerships and to giving back. They should be commended and then some.”

Michael Dukakis, distinguished professor of political science and a member of the SquashBusters’ Board of Advisors, said that the success of the program is a tribute to Zaff’s “vision and tenacity.” It provides both an athletic and academic opportunity many inner-city students might not otherwise have received, he said.

“Students get deeply and actively involved in a sport at which they excel and explore new educational opportunities, which makes a huge difference in their lives,” he said.

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