Community organizations are bringing together academics and sports.
By: Emily Alvarenga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Community organizations in southeastern San Diego are working together to give [systemically under-resourced] youth access to opportunities that will help them to succeed in life.
Those opportunities include teaching kids about squash — the sport, not the vegetable — which has become a key part of Access Youth Academy’s movement to get students into college.
Squash, which is akin to racquetball, originated in England and is popular on the East Coast. It is relatively unknown in San Diego, which offers local students scholarship opportunities that some might be unaware of.
Since 2006, the after-school academy has been using a combination of academic enrichment, life skills, sports training and financial support to help kids reach their full potential, program officials said.
“Squash is one vehicle that can get them to college, but it’s not the only one,” said program director Shelby Coopwood. “We work with student-athletes, so the student comes first … We take a holistic approach, so we teach health and wellness, we emphasize community service, social responsibility.”
Now, the academy is working to forge partnerships with other local organizations, like Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation and KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy to continue expanding its reach.
In July, Access Youth collaborated with the Jacobs Center to open its new facility, located on Euclid Avenue in Chollas View, complete with eight squash courts, locker rooms, four classrooms, a computer lab and more.
“Most of our students are from this region, so it made sense to build here,” said Cindy Sweeney, the academy’s director of development. “There’s a lot of collaboration that’s going on here … that’s really coming together to lift this region.”
The average household in the southeastern San Diego region, a population of about 165,000, has an annual income of less than $25,000, and nearly 22 percent of families with children under 18 are below the federal poverty level, according to 2020 U.S. census data.
The Access program, which is 100 percent free for students, currently serves about 140 youth and works with students for 12 years: from seventh through 12th grade; through four years of college; and for two years beyond college as they enter the workforce, Sweeney said.
Students during squash practice at Access Youth Academy, an after-school program. (Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Among the schools the academy now works with in the region is KIPP [Adelante], a tuition-free, charter [public] middle school founded in 2003, which shares similar ideals.
Cowperthwaite says it’s all about giving kids access to various enrichment programs.
“We want our kids to lead choice-filled lives,” she said. “Extracurricular activities are the application of the character skills that are taught in school.”
KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy student Briana H. at squash practice with fellow students at Access Youth Academy, an after-school program, in San Diego on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. (Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)
KIPP [Adelante], located adjacent to the Jacobs Center, is just blocks away from the new squash facility. After class, students in the Access program head over to the academy, where they then not only play squash for an hour-and-a-half but also get individualized tutoring and mentoring for an hour-and-a-half every day after school.
Martinez, one of KIPP’s students who is also in the squash program, says it’s better than other sports he’s played previously.
“It’s weird, but it’s cool,” he said, and squash’s uniqueness “is good because you can actually get a scholarship because not a lot of people play it.”
“Because it’s not a very popular sport, if someone is a high-skilled player, or even a relatively good player, their chances of getting a scholarship are higher,” added Coopwood.
Over the last 16 years, Access students have earned more than $9.7 million in scholarships, including Gates Millennium and Quest Bridge Awards, and have been accepted to and earned degrees from some of the nation’s top-rated schools, such as Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford and UC Berkeley, program officials say. ...
For eighth-grader Jazmine Nguyen, squash is special because it’s all about your mindset. ...
Access officials say every one of the 81 students that have gone through the program has gone on to graduate from high school and been accepted into college. Additionally, every one of the 33 who completed the entire 12-year Access program has completed their education and entered the workforce in a professional capacity, they say.
Saffery moved from the UK to San Diego to join the Access team last year. She says it wasn’t an easy move, but was worth it.
“I was so lucky that I got to live an amazing life through playing squash … to then give kids the chance to play the sport that I love is a no-brainer,” she said. “It makes going into work nicer because you know you’re impacting kids’ lives. ...
Read the full story at the San Diego Union-Tribune.
About the Author: Emily Alvarenga is the community reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune. She previously covered features and business as a senior staff writer at The Signal in the Santa Clarita Valley and is a San Diego State alum.