It seems unlikely—that in a community often rocked by crime—anyone would willingly commit to a long-term presence in both it and the lives of children growing up there. The leaders at MetroSquash feel differently.
“It’s very gratifying to help the underprivileged kids of Chicago,” says Lake Forest’s Peter Dunne, currently serving as chairman of MetroSquash’s Board of Directors. “It’s a tough world for them on the South Side.”
MetroSquash is a nonprofit organization that offers academic assistance, mentoring, life skills training, and yes, squash lessons, to students in fifth through 12th grade. Another very unique and important aspect of the organization is that it supports its graduates while they are in college. MetroSquash’s origins come from similar programs founded on or near the East Coast, in New York City and Boston.
The organization, which originated in 2005 using the University of Chicago’s squash courts and a nearby church for the academic programming, recently wrapped up tryouts for this year’s new and returning student athletes that will now use a brand new, state-ofthe-art facility located on the 6100 block of Cottage Grove Avenue Dunne, a long time enthusiast of the game, is thrilled to be a part of MetroSquash, having signed on when a group of squash players began actively working to put this kind of program in place in Chicago.
“The template for the program comes from Boston, where it spread to New York and other cities on the East Coast. [The group] wanted someone from my club to serve on its first board.”
It was an easy sell. “I think squash has been a great game for me and gave me a chance to give something back to the game and to the city on the charitable level.”
ESTABLISHING ROOTS IN WOODLAWN
One of the first orders of business was to find its executive director. The board brought on David Kay in 2005—a Canadian and East Coast transplant who moved to Chicago to lead the program from its infancy to becoming a well-established life changer for students in the Woodlawn neighborhood. Dunne points to the structure of MetroSquash and similar programs as the reason for its location. “These kind of programs partner with a university or with an academic institution,” he says, because that kind of proximity allows for a deep pool of volunteer resources for academic tutoring. “It’s a target rich environment for volunteers,” he says. Additionally, U of C was also able to offer up its squash courts.
“The University of Chicago was able to serve our [physical] needs for the first eight or nine years,” he says. “We were able to use the courts free of charge.”
A NEW BUILDING FOR BRIGHTER FUTURES
The permanent facility, which opened this past April, is a crowning achievement for the organization. With 21,000 square feet of space under one roof for courts and classrooms, MetroSquash can now serve their students at one location. Eliminating the transition time between court practice and the classroom means more time for the kids and volunteers to engage.
“It’s been a total game changer in terms of connectivity with the community,” says Kay, who explains the building sits at a gateway to Woodlawn, increasing its visibility dramatically. He adds the reaction from past participants in the program has been dramatic. “Seeing them see the space for the first time, the kids are in tears,” he says, noting “These kids are thinking, ‘Gosh I wish we had this when I was younger,’ but they’re so proud to have been there.”
Dunne echoes the community sentiment. “There’s a lot of community interest,” he says. “We’re seeing a big spike in applications for the program. I think people have come to accept that we’re there permanently, it’s not going away tomorrow and the children want to be involved.”
In 10 years, MetroSquash has grown from a program serving 10 fifth graders to one that engages with more than 400 students in year-round programming—and looking at the numbers, those students are on the path to a bright future. MetroSquash boasts a 100 percent high school graduation and college acceptance rate in the last three years. And that says nothing of the personal impact it has on the adults involved.
“It’s given me a lot of perspective on how fortunate people on the North Shore are,“ says Dunne, “and the challenges kids on the South Side face every day. It’s gratifying to see these kids overcome obstacles, to see their achievement.”
“One of the beauties of the program is that we go very deep and we aim to be transformative,” says Kay. “For me, it’s been the greatest joy of my life professionally, by leaps and bounds. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
For more information about MetroSquash, visit metrosquash.org.
By Kelly Konrad
Photography by Marian Kraus