Rhody Squash

Rhode Island / Dec. 14, 2012 / by The Team

The game of squash is fun, exciting, and challenging, both physically and mentally. For middle school children in Newport, Rhode Island, an after-school program based around squash is helping them to improve their physical fitness and academic results. 

The organization’s Executive Director, Kerry Bidlack, explains that, “Rhody Squash is a nonprofit after-school program helping disadvantaged youth … through squash and academic tutoring to succeed and to get into independent high schools and colleges.” 

Three days a week during the school year, usually from early October to late May, children from Thomson Middle School, the only public middle school in Newport, attend Rhody Squash at the facilities at St George’s school.

“We have 12 middle school students from fifth grade to eighth grade,” says Bidlack. “They spend an hour on the squash courts then they spend an hour with a pretty much one-on-one academic tutoring situation.”

This is Rhody Squash’s first year partnering with St George’s, says Bidlack. The program was previously run at the Newport public squash courts but working at St George’s gives the program an extra edge. 

“This is actually the first alliance of its kind for an urban squash program to be teamed with an independent high school,” explains Bidlack. “It's really an awesome opportunity for the kids to get a glimpse into a future that they can achieve through working hard, through a program like this.” 

The goals of the program are two-fold. The first is to ensure that children who need some additional academic assistance are getting the help they need. 

During their one our of study time, the students are able to work on their homework and, if they need it, get help from the tutor on duty. Rhody Squash also provides tutors for students out-with program time and even during the summer to help students improve their grades. 

Academically, the children all benefit from the time and attention they receive from the program. 

“You could do your homework so you won't have to do it at home, you could have more free time. You get help if you need help, there's never any reason for them to do anything else, they're always there to help you,” says ten-year-old Collin. 

For Lucas, age 14, Rhody Squash has challenged him despite having played many sports before. “Squash was something new for me and it's very challenging and it demands a lot of you physically and mentally. And educationally it has helped.” 

He continues, explaining that “Rhody Squash actually provided me for a tutor for summer for math because I hate it, I'm really bad at it, and so that definitely helped me. Right now I have an A in math, in algebra, which is amazing.”  

“It's a great sport as well but they're also getting that extra time to sit down, get homework done that they might not be able to do that at another after-school … program,” says Bidlack.  

Lilly, age 11, enjoys the program because it will open doors for her. “It keeps you really fit and it's really good for you. It's just a fun thing to do, it's a great sport to learn and you can get scholarships to places so it's a really good sport.” 

Historically, squash has been a more elite sport, and is now often played at independent high schools and colleges. Rhody Squash hopes to give their students the chance to present an attractive application to any school they wish to apply to, and the addition of squash can certainly add to their application. 

Pete Avitable, Rhody Squash’s Director of Squash, explains that, “Primarily, squash is played at private schools, at private clubs, some businesses but up to now there really hasn't been a public avenue to get involved ... By providing kids with squash education, you open up a lot of doors socially and in business and in education that are very tough to get to otherwise.” 

“Most high schools have people starting squash, kids starting squash at that level,” says Bidlack. “To give these kids the additional three to four years of squash before they go to the high school level is just a really good advantage for them.”

“It's also with the squash and the academics makes them attractive to an independent high school where it is maybe just academics might not be,” continues Bidlack. 

The combination of higher grades, which these children can certainly achieve with a little bit of help, and the ability to play squash gives the students an edge that they need to get into the high school of their choice. 

More importantly perhaps, it gives the students a higher chance of getting the scholarships that would make their transition to an independent high school and college possible. 

Rhody Squash also takes its participants on trips to some of the most prestigious colleges and schools around New England to show them “the schools that they otherwise would never get the opportunity to see.”

The chance to see those colleges, as well as to practice their squash in an independent school’s facilities, can give them that little extra motivation they need to work harder in school. “I think they get an idea of what is going to be opened up to them, what options they're going to have, to see a school like this.”

Rhody Squash not only partners with St George’s to use their facilities. Some of the St George’s students join the classes as part of their community service aspect of school. 

“They work with our kids, they work with them on the squash courts and in the classroom, and especially on the courts, the kids love to work with the high school students. They're that much better than them so that they really push them and it's just cool for them to hang out with high schoolers and play some squash with them.”

When asked why she thinks the program works, she credits the squash as the way to make the academics less unlikeable. 

“I think by combining the squash and the academics, squash is kind of the hook to get kids interested. I mean, we can have an after-school academic tutoring program but that's not going to seem that attractive to fifth and sixth graders but they can come to a facility like this, play squash. It's a really intense, it's a really good workout, it's fast paced, you smash the ball against the wall. Who doesn't like to do that?”

The focus of the program is, of course, to give the participants a new skill and a new confidence in their own abilities, both physical and intellectual. It’s all to ensure the children see that their goals “are attainable. If you work hard and you make a commitment and you stick to it, then these things are not that unattainable, unreachable.” 

“I hope that each student kind of walks away with the idea that there is so much more possible, there's so many more possibilities than maybe they didn't realize before they were involved in this program.”