By Kim Constantinesco
It turns out that like prescription glasses can help people with poor eyesight see better, squash goggles can enhance vision and clarity for disadvantaged youth.
After school, Justice Vigil, 16, packs up his backpack and hops on a bus. It seems like a fairly normal thing for a student to do when he or she gets out of school. However, Vigil’s trip is unique in that his bus ride doesn’t take him home; it indirectly puts him in the HOV lane to a college degree.
Vigil is the youngest of four children and comes from a single-parent home where money is limited. He attends Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver, Colorado, which caters to low-income kids. Students at the school work one day a week in professional settings whether it’s at real estate offices, banks, or insurance companies. The students use that day of work to gain credible “real world” experience and help pay for their own education. That’s where Vigil is coming from, and if all pans out, he will be the first in his family to go to college.
However, without the help of Mile High Squash and mentor, Rich Wilsey, Vigil never would have gotten into Arrupe Jesuit.
“I would not be at the school where I’m at now,” Vigil said. “I would not be as mature as I am today if it were not for Mile High Squash and for Rich.”
Three days per week, Vigil leaves school and goes to the Denver Athletic Club, a member-owned, private club. To the untrained eye, it looks like Vigil is just working on his squash game. To those who know the program well, it looks like Vigil is working on his future; one that becomes brighter by the day.
In’s and Out’s of Mile High Squash
Urban squash programs have been around since 1996 when Squash Busters opened up an after-school program in Boston, which focuses on squash, academics, and community service for low-income youth. Since then, programs have opened in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Baltimore among other cities.
With the help of Governor John Hickenlooper, the Anschutz Foundation, the Denver Athletic Club, and the Hashm Khan Foundation, Mile High Squash got its start in 2008.
The program serves 45 children (6th grade through high school), with each child in the program committed to be there for seven consecutive years. Each student gets at least nine hours of contact time per week.
“The driving piece is that students are first-generation college bound, and that they fall into the free and reduced lunch category,” executive director Eric Eiteljorg said of the target population, which just happens to be predominantly Hispanic.
Students that enter the program are typically 2-3 years behind, academically.
“If you’re growing up speaking Spanish at home, your parents speak only Spanish, and you’re going to an English school, that makes it hard,” Eiteljorg said. “When you don’t have great health care, it makes it hard. When you live in a neighborhood where it’s not safe to be outside, that makes it hard. They all have enough challenges in life where when they begin school, it becomes easy for them to fall behind.”
Tryouts for Mile High Squash are fierce, but they’re not what you expect them to be.
“The tryouts are really about ‘Can you stay committed to something,'” Eiteljorg said. “There’s a two month try out period. It’s hard to tell how committed someone will be seven years down the road. What we want are kids who want to be there whether you’re a great athlete or someone who just likes to run around. We want parents who want their kids to be there.”
Students train to play squash against each other, against members of the Club, and against players in tournaments all over the country. They also learn about fitness and nutrition related to the sport.
“It keeps me active and fit,” Vigil said. “When I was in middle school, I used to weigh a lot. Now that squash has gotten more intense, we’re running a lot. The aspect of competition is fun. I can’t participate in a sport that I would really like to, like football, because they don’t have football at my school. Squash is an alternative for me.”
Removing the Goggles
Full commitment is needed from the students due to the rich and wide components of the program.
Not only are the children playing squash, but they’re getting help academically. When the children arrive at the Club after school on Wednesday’s and Friday’s, they play squash for an hour (They play longer on Saturdays). Then, it’s off to do their homework with the help of the volunteers. The adults make sure that that the children are studying for tests and completing assignments. During the summer when Mile High Squash is running for 35 hours a week, they offer math and literacy enrichment classes.
During their days at the Club, a counselor is made available to all the students.
“The kids use her in an organic informal way,” Eiteljorg said. “No one wants to go to therapy. They’ll wander through the hallways and a kid will come over and say, ‘Hey, can I talk?’ and they just sit down wherever they are usually so that no one can eavesdrop. It’s not a ‘wander off to my office and sit down kind-of-thing.'”
Mile High Squash also partners with the Responsible Sex Education Institute, where it’s not just about sex education. Starting in 7th grade, students learn about their body, how to respect it, and how to have safe and healthy relationships.
The primary mission of Mile High Squash is to make sure that every student graduates from high school and moves on to some form of post secondary eduction, which is a huge challenge.
“No one has ever gone to college so there’s a sense of ‘What’s college and why do we need it?,'” Eiteljorg said. “They face the struggle of other people asking why they’re in a program that’s getting them ready for college. They get ‘Hey, why are you doing that? No one else is. Are you better than us?'”
That’s why Mile High Squash aims to expand their world. From the five community service projects per year required of all students to the older kids experiencing college life for the first time (for a week at a time) and finding out what resources are available to them on campus through a program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the goal is for students to find their role in the broader community.
Through Mile High Squash’s internship program, one student even got an internship at the Governor’s office. She goes there once per week, and the money she makes gets donated to Mile High Squash, which they put into a bank account that she can’t touch until after college.
Building a Fort of Support
After their first year in the program, each student gets matched up with a mentor.
The mentors’ goal is to provide students with support and another connection to the outside world, without taking on parent or teacher-like qualities.
Justice Vigil’s mentor, Rich Wilsey, an engineer by trade, started with Mile High Squash in 2007, when Vigil was in 5th grade. Wilsey loves to play squash and he was looking for new opportunities in the volunteer area.
For a guy who “likes to quantify things” and looks to absolutes, at first, Wilsey wasn’t sure of the impact that he was making in Vigil’s life. That was demonstrated by the fact that it took Vigil three years before he ever phoned Wilsey out of the blue.
“My wife and I have two adult children,” Wilsey said. “You spend 20+ years trying to nurture them, and you’re with them every day. I had to be much more patient and learn to let go and have faith that I was positively impacting Justice. “As a parent, I could check up on them every day in person. I didn’t have that opportunity as a mentor.”
Perhaps Wilsey doesn’t quite know the degree to which he’s impacted the junior in high school.
“At first, I knew nothing about this man, but now he’s like a father figure to me,” Vigil said. “He helps me a lot with school and just being there for me. He’s important to what I want to do in life because I want to eventually become a chef. If I tell him that I want to do something with culinary arts, he makes it a point to cook together. He really takes me seriously. I just like doing activities with him because he’s a figure in my life where I feel supported.”
Wilsey also makes it a point to teach Vigil important life skills.
“We, as adults, have developed life skills that are not necessarily taught in school,” Wilsey said. “I’m a real physical guy. I like to know how things work. I like to do projects on the garden and the house. I like to build things. I take a lot of opportunities to do build things with Justice and teaching him how to use tools safely. We had the opportunity to hang lights a couple of weeks ago, so I taught him about electricity.”
Wilsey also brought Vigil with him on a road trip to South Dakota over the summer. Wisley’s son was biking across the United States, from Boston to Washington, and Wilsey and Vigil acted as the support team. It was the first time that Vigil really enjoyed camping.
“I really enjoyed being closer to nature, and having to build your own tent and work through weather issues,” Vigil said.
The relationship is mutually beneficial.
“I know that Justice and I will have a lifelong relationship,” Wilsey said. “I’m very proud that Justice displays good judgement for a 16 year old.”
Now that the oldest group of students have reached their senior year of high school, the success of the program is starting to be realized in a discernible way. All eight seniors will be graduating from high school. Then it’s on to the next thing.
“Leaving home is tough no matter where you are,” Eiteljorg said. “If you come from a home where people don’t leave the house very often, it’s a big deal.”
That’s why it’s remarkable that of the eight seniors, four have plans to go to college. Two plan on going into the armed forces, and one is still unsure which direction he wants to go.
The impact of Mile High Squash is felt from the youngest to the oldest.
“This program gives me a better opportunity to have a better life,” Vigil said. “These adults here really do help.”
This is proof that Squash and other sports can be a gateway to success.
Those goggles clearly aren’t only to protect vision. They promote it as well because for the first time, these kids are seeing a future that was once invisible to them.