Michael Hemphill, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at the College of Charleston, says there’s one certainty when it comes to youth development programs that aim to place kids on a path to college: You need a hook.
This is especially true for underprivileged children who may not see a college education in their future. Before you can expose them to what college is, what it is not and how it can change their lives, you must first capture their attention.
For one youth development program that works closely with the College of Charleston that hook is the sport of squash. Yes, squash, the racquet sport invented in Britain in the 1830s that is often associated with elite universities.
Founded in 2009, Chucktown Squash is an afterschool program in Charleston that provides children with academic guidance, athletic training and community service opportunities. The program started with 10 students from Sanders Clyde Middle School, located in downtown Charleston at the foot of the Ravenel Bridge.
In 2011, the program began partnering with the College of Charleston. Hemphill helps facilitate the partnership and serves as an advisor to Chucktown Squash.
College of Charleston alumnus Torey Broderson ‘13, who started the College’s squash club team in 2010, is program director for Chucktown Squash. The program’s executive director is Lauren Herterich.
Through its partnership with the College, Chucktown Squash is thriving. The program has grown to serve 35 students from Sanders Clyde and Burke High School. The students from Burke are ninth graders who started with the program while in middle school.
The youth development program aligns well with the College’s academic mission, providing a platform for faculty and student research as well as volunteer, mentoring and internship opportunities for undergraduate students.
“It’s a win-win,” says Todd Abedon, board chair of Chucktown Squash and a former collegiate squash player at Tufts University. “The Chucktown kids benefit tremendously from the exposure to a college campus; being able to utilize those resources is inspiring. And for the college kids to experience first-hand what an impact their skills and commitment can make in the community is invaluable.”
Abedon says that while squash has historically been a sport played at elite schools, a growing urban squash movement has created a much more diverse group of players across the country.
One of the earliest urban squash programs was started in Boston in 1995. Since then, similar programs have sprung up in major cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. Many operate under guidance from the National Urban Squash in Education Association.
Hemphill says the children quickly take to the sport and many become students of the game. Any initial reluctance they may have usually stems from unfamiliarity with squash.
“Kids are skeptical of it because it doesn’t have any agency in their community,” Hemphill says. “The message it sends to them is you can do anything. You can fit into this community. You can fit into any community.”
Every Monday through Thursday during the academic year, students in Chucktown Squash spend about three hours on the College of Charleston campus. The first part of their visit is devoted to practicing squash and doing other physical activity on the College’s squash and racquetball courts in Johnson Physical Education Center. The College’s Campus Recreation Services, directed by Gene Sessoms, has supported the partnership by making the courts available.
After practice, the students head to nearby classrooms where they complete homework and take part in an academic enrichment program focused on literacy. Students also learn about history related to Charleston, diversity and other topics that supplement their school curriculum.
The homework routine is an important part of the program. And it’s where the children get to know the undergraduate volunteers. The College and its students are essential to the program’s goal of developing long-term relationships with the children and placing them on a college track, Abedon says.
“I think they enjoy being here and interacting with the college kids,” Abedon says. “We are trying to create a pipeline and get these kids to college.”
Spending time with college students and others who are genuinely interested in her academic progress and her future has definitely made an impression on Ingri Morales, a sixth grader at Sanders Clyde.
Morales is already thinking about where she wants to attend college. “It feels like my second home,” she says of the campus. “I really want to come to the College of Charleston.”
RELATED: Learn more about Chucktown Squash.
Hemphill learned about Chucktown Squash by chance after he saw a group of school children playing squash on the College’s courts one afternoon.
Before coming to the College in 2012, Hemphill conducted research on youth development programs that use sports to engage with children. He immediately recognized that the squash program could provide excellent learning and volunteer opportunities for majors in physical education and exercise science.
Two of Hemphill’s former students, sisters Darcie and Jessie Ilg, began serving as homework mentors with the program that year and remained involved until their graduation in May 2014. As part of an independent study project, the Ilg sisters worked with the children to put on a health fair to raise money for the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter. The kids did their own research on health foods, made recipes and learned about entrepreneurship as part of the project.
In addition to undergraduates from physical education and exercise science, students from the College’s Bonner Leader program also serve as volunteers and mentors with Chucktown Squash.
Away from campus, the program’s staff and volunteers maintain contact with the children on weekends and during holiday breaks. The children have the opportunity to participate in a summer camp, a bridge run program and out-of-state trips to compete against urban squash programs in other cities.
The program has been such a success that when Sanders Clyde adopted an extended school day this year, the Charleston County School District allowed the middle school students who take part in Chucktown Squash to count the hours they spend at the College toward their regular school day.
“That’s huge,” Hemphill says. “They are saying that what we are doing is an important part of these children’s education.”
The College’s partnership with Chucktown Squash also has created an avenue for undergraduate research. Last year, Hemphill and several of his students conducted a study of the squash program to gauge its benefits to the children in areas such as academic performance, goal-setting and personal and social responsibility.
Hemphill and his students developed a report on the program based on focus groups, surveys and interviews with program staff, children, parents, teachers and students from the College.
Teachers from Sanders Clyde reported that the children in the program are more focused at school, demonstrate leadership qualities and complete homework on time. Those improvements translated to an average increase of seven grade points on the students’ report cards, Hemphill says.
Many of the children say that the parts of the program they value most include playing squash, receiving help with homework and taking group trips to compete against urban squash teams in cities such as Baltimore, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.
Jerry Manigault, a ninth grader at Burke who entered the program three years ago, says the program provides a sense of belonging. “I like to play squash, and they help us with our homework,” he says. “And we get to do activities on Saturday like running the bridge, going to the park and cleanups on the beach.”
One finding of the study that was not all that surprising to those familiar with the program is the extent to which the children and the college students form deep and lasting bonds. In fact, a number of students from the College said their participation in Chucktown Squash was among the most rewarding experiences they had during their entire time as undergraduates.
Remy Starker, a senior exercise science major, began mentoring with the program as a sophomore in 2012. She helped conduct research for the study and is currently doing a senior capstone project with Chucktown Squash.
Starker says she became especially close to one student, Waleen Hardy, who entered the program as a sixth grader and is now attending Porter-Gaud on a scholarship made possible through Chucktown Squash.
Mentoring Hardy and seeing him thrive academically has been rewarding and inspiring, says Starker. “He’s so bright,” she says. “I was kind of like a proud mom.”