Squash has the reputation as being a sport with limited access. There’s only one public court in all of New York City, and that was just recently opened. However, there are many dedicated squash enthusiasts who believe their beloved pastime is the exact opposite—it is the sport of opportunity.
“One of the things I always like is that [squash is] a common language,” said George Polsky, former Harvard player and founder of the non-profit StreetSquash. “If you go to another city that you’ve never been to before, even another country, you can always find a squash game, and just very quickly connect over that common thread.”
In 1999, Polsky decided to introduce that “common language” to inner-city kids in Harlem. He founded the charity StreetSquash, an after-school program where sixth through 12th graders would play squash and get mentored in academics.
“The more aspects of their lives that you can be involved with—their school, home, outside of school—you’re going to gain a bigger picture of what’s going on and be able to impact more areas of their lives,” Polsky said.
StreetSquash is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and Polsky’s holistic approach has been working. One hundred percent of StreetSquash students graduate high school and receive acceptances at postsecondary institutions; 94 percent matriculate at those colleges. In 2018, 32 high school students and 20 alumni college students graduated, a record number for both. Also, seven of the charity’s alums played intercollegiate varsity squash last season.
“StreetSquash is a home to me,” says Zeinab, a high school student graduating this coming June from Frederick Douglas Academy II. She’s also a top-50 US ranked squash player in the girls under 17 category. “It brought me friends forever and staff who care about your individual success and motivate you everyday.”
Tenacity and Grit
Polsky started playing squash competitively at age 8, then played through high school and in college.
“There is an element of grit and tenacity that you have to demonstrate on the [squash] court to be successful,” Polsky said. He said that ethic has translated to all arenas of his life, from academics to professional work.
Midway through his masters in social work at NYU, Polsky competed in a squash tournament in Israel that would alter his career arc, as he bonded with his coach, Greg Zaff.
“Greg was an enormously tenacious squash player, and is an enormously tenacious leader,” Polsky said. Zaff had just launched Squash Busters in Boston, using squash as a vehicle to drive academics for underprivileged inner-city kids.
Even before meeting Zaff, Polsky had already decided he didn’t want to do clinical work after finishing his masters.
“I wanted to do something where you worked with kids and families in a wider range of settings, not just in the 45 minutes in a room with them,” he said. But he believed Zaff’s model had lots of room for a student’s long-term growth.
“You could work with kids that were not receiving the support that they needed, [and] you could combine the sports component, that was important to Greg and me. There was education, sports, and underserved communities,” Polsky said. “It was a fortuitous encounter.”
Polsky returned to New York and began putting all the pieces together to bootstrap this new 501(c)(3) charity. He put together a board, did some modest fundraising to hire one employee, and inspired the prestigious Harvard Club and Columbia University to give access to their squash courts. But Polsky was then faced with the biggest challenge yet—selling the kids on the vision of StreetSquash.
“You had to really scrap and claw, and that still has to happen today,” he said. “When you go present to the students who have no idea what this program is like, you have to go in there with passion and excitement and sell them on this program.”
Polsky established partner schools at Thurgood Marshall Academy and Frederick Douglass Academy. He went into their cafeterias with a squash racquet and hit the ball against the wall trying to show them how much fun squash can be.
“No sixth grader in his or her right mind is thinking about college … You can’t sell your soul. You can’t lie. You can’t mislead. You want to present everything that’s going to happen to them, but you also have to figure out a way to present it that’s going to be interesting and exciting to get them in the door,” he said. A dozen students decided they’d give StreetSquash a try that first year.
Twenty years later, Street Squash has grown from one employee to 26 full-time staff with 400 after-school students and alumni. In 2008, Street Squash opened its own $9-million complex in Harlem, with four classrooms, eight squash courts, and a library to inspire the hundreds of students who visit daily. An average of 25 students per each grade, from sixth to 12th grades, come in two to four times a week.
In 2012, StreetSquash also launched a program in Newark, New Jersey, and they hope to soon break ground there, building a center like the one in Harlem.
The experience today is very different in its own building, though the “core spirit and mission hasn’t changed,” Polsky said. Each student has both a squash and academic coordinator, and works with them every day at the Harlem center, playing squash and getting mentored in academics. The academic coordinator even visits the student’s school weekly to keep abreast of any issues or struggles the student may be having.
StreetSquash also works with students for six years after they graduate high school, to make sure they’re equipped to handle the new pressures of leaving home, college, and early professional life.
For this momentous 20-year anniversary, there’s a big celebration fundraiser at the Harvard Club in January. Five hundred people will attend, including several StreetSquash alumni. One alumnus from the original class who Polsky remembers fondly, Sade, will be attending. She had lost her mother at a young age and struggled throughout her time in the program. She even dropped out of college for a bit.
“It was not a smooth sailing. It wasn’t point A to point B to point C. It was a lot of bumps on the road,” Polsky said. “[But] talk about a tenacious person … Her squash game was similar to just how she was, which was grit, tenacity.”
Sade is now a registered nurse and mother of two children, living happily in Atlanta.
“[She’s] a great example of someone that has persevered and taken advantage of opportunities that have been available here over time,” Polsky said. “Her personality and determination have made a wonderful life for herself, despite significant obstacles.”
J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.