A little-known San Diego program grabbed a piece of the spotlight Tuesday evening on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.
Access Youth Academy has been a dream come true for Blair Sadler, past head of Rady Children’s Hospital, a handful of his squash buddies and Brazilian-born squash aficionado Renato Paiva, who calls the program “one of the best-kept secrets in town.”
The after-school academy targets underserved youth whose parents never attended college. It marries tutoring and academic assistance with athletics (in the form of squash), to give students added leverage for college admission.
While the academy’s newly constructed eight-court, four-classroom $12.5 million facility opened last July in southeastern San Diego, the program has been operating quietly for 16 years, initially renting squash courts at UC San Diego.
Sadler, who played squash at Amherst College and went on to be ranked 19th in the nation for men, was introduced to “urban squash” in Boston. The indoor sport has long been popular on the East Coast and at Ivy League colleges, but never caught on in the West.
Sadler was impressed with youth programs that sprouted up in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere to introduce inner-city kids to the sport as a door opener to university admission.
Why couldn’t this be offered in San Diego, wondered Sadler, who sat on the board of the U.S. Squash Association. He and his San Diego squash buddy, Greg Scherman, and former San Diegan Chris Walker worked to make that happen.
The San Diegans drafted a plan and posted an ad in a national squash magazine to hire an urban squash program director.
The timing was fortuitous for Paiva, 27, who was an assistant coach at Harvard.
He had always played squash for the love of the sport. One day he met Greg Zaff, founder of the first urban squash program in Boston, and it changed his life.
“These kids were playing squash to get a job and to get a life. My DNA mutated that day,” he says. He bought a plane ticket and flew to San Diego to interview for the new position.
There were other qualified candidates, reports Sadler, but, “Renato was the one. He picked us, and we picked him.”
While they started in 2006 by renting courts and working solely with low-income students at the UCSD-operated Preuss School, the founders’ dream was to build their own facility and grow the program south of Interstate 8, partnering with schools in underserved areas.
It was a long and bumpy road. First, they forged with a partnership with Hoover High School to share its classrooms and build courts on campus with the financial help of a special ballot measure. After three years, the school opted to build extra classrooms instead. The deal fell through, and Access Youth Academy was back at ground zero.