Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Many of you may have heard about an urban squash program starting up in Detroit. This exciting and innovative program is called “Racquet Up Detroit” and is headed by new DAC member Derek Aguirre. If the world was full of Dereks, every single kid on the planet would be swinging a racquet. Truly inspirational and dedicated to the sport and helping underprivileged kids (no city needs that more than Detroit), Derek is the perfect man for the job.

The Squash Joint (TSJ): “How did you get involved with the urban squash program, and why Detroit?”

My path to “urban squash” and Racquet Up Detroit is a rather unlikely one. I grew up in the small town of Standish, in northern Michigan, where farming and the other type of squash are a big deal. But until I moved to Ann Arbor to attend University of Michigan, I had very little experience with cities and urban environments. While at Michigan, I became very involved with a volunteer group that facilitated community service opportunities for U of M students in Detroit—after helping clean up a park, tearing down an abandoned house, and working with youth in a tutoring program, I was hooked. Detroit, and non-profit work became my passion. Family, and a great after-school youth program called SquashBusters drew me to Boston, where I had my first exposure to squash and Greg Zaff. Greg, a former hardball squash champion, started SquashBusters about 15 years ago with the notion that the sport could do a lot to help kids in the inner city when combined with academic tutoring, community service, and mentoring in an after-school setting. He was right, as the successes of SquashBusters have been incredible, with nearly 100% of program graduates going to college. The model has now been replicated around the country in 9 other places, including now here in Detroit (ours is called “Racquet Up”).
When I began working at SquashBusters, I had never seen or played squash before. I was running the tutoring and community service components, but it didn’t take long for me to get the “squash bug.” I was soon playing with the kids in the program any chance I could get, and eventually playing in Boston club leagues and tournaments. After six years at SquashBusters, squash was in my blood.
I also became a true believer in Greg Zaff’s approach to youth development. The secret to his success—very personal, intensive, long-term relationships with kids over many years. Only when young people know that you are in it for the long journey with them, will they begin to trust you, listen to you, and look up to you as a mentor. I am still in touch with many of my very first students, then 7th graders, who are now seniors in college! Don’t be surprised if I recruit some of them to Detroit one day to work for Racquet Up.

So, why Detroit? I have always been a believer in this city, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to bring the “Urban Squash and Education” model here. I have confidence in the approach, and know that kids here in Detroit have a ton of untapped potential. We will hopefully help a lot of young people realize this potential through our program.

TSJ: “Please summarize for us what it took/takes to get this program underway in Detroit”

There are three essentials ingredients to the success of Racquet Up Detroit: people, funding, and facilities. Greg Zaff, who now runs the National Urban Squash and Education Association, led the charge to put together a great local board of directors (with a few outstanding DAC members!), hire me as Executive Director, and start getting people excited about our new initiative. He helped secure a major challenge grant from the Knight Foundation to spark our fundraising efforts, and we have had a good deal of success with other foundations and individuals as a result. In addition, we have secured a great partnership with the Northwest Activities Center, the former Jewish Community Center in Detroit for use of squash courts and classrooms—this will be our home base. Finally, we have built partnerships with two Detroit Public Schools to recruit approximately 35 fifth grade students to join the program this January.

TSJ: “Where does the money come from?”

The money to support the program comes primarily from philanthropic foundations, and from generous individual donors. We offer the program as a virtually free opportunity to our students and our partner schools, but that means we must raise every dollar we spend each year. Many of you reading this have already contributed to the cause—thank you! We couldn’t do it without you. If you have not yet done so, and would like to learn more, please contact me anytime at 313-600-9593, or derek@racquetup.org. You can also visit our website at www.racquetup.org (thanks to DAC member Matt DiDio’s Gyro Creative Group for outstanding work on our visual brand, logo, and website).

If you would rather give of your time, we are also in great need of volunteer squash coaches and academic tutors, Monday through Friday from 3:30-6:30pm, and Saturday mornings. Please let me know if you want to help out in this way—it is a ton of fun, and very rewarding.

We would also be thrilled to receive donations of new or used racquets and eyeguards.

TSJ: “Which NFL team do you follow?”

Now for the serious matters…sorry to say that I don’t follow the NFL very closely. I am a die-hard Michigan Wolverine, so Michigan football takes every ounce of loyalty and spirit I have (especially during years like this one…)

TSJ: “How do you choose the kids for the program?”

Racquet Up recruits students through an intensive, month-long process aimed at identifying students from Detroit who will most likely thrive within the culture and structure of the program. We don’t choose students based on athletic ability, and we don’t screen for the top students either—our biggest concern is finding students whom we believe can make the commitment and will take full advantage of the opportunity. We also weigh character values very heavily—do they treat their peers and adults well? Are they willing to try hard and take positive risks? Can they handle the demands and structure of the program?

Students in the 5th grade are first exposed to the opportunity through a presentation in their auditorium. The next step is to give all 5th grade students an opportunity to try squash in their gym classes. If students are excited and interested, they can “try-out” for one of 35 spots on the team. Tryouts consist of roughly the same activities as the normal after-school program— playing squash and engaging in academic and team-building activities. After tryouts, we consult the teachers for more feedback, and finally meet with each of the families individually to ensure that the program is a good fit all around. If all the pieces line up, the student and their parent/guardian signs an Agreement of Participation, and we are off and running!

TSJ: “How do you rate the success of the program?”

Our primary goals are to help students improve their physical fitness and reading abilities, increase their self-esteem and strength of character, and ensure that they achieve high educational goals. We will have measures for each of these along the way. Most importantly, however, we will consider Racquet Up Detroit a success if our students stay in the program for several years, grow to love the sport and enjoy exercise, try their hardest in school, give back to the community, act with integrity and show respect for others, and graduate from high school and college.
[Picture: Derek with success story Carlos. Carlos joined the Boston "Squash Busters" program in 8th grade and spent 5 years under Greg Zaff's and Derek's tutelage. He is now a junior at the Wesleyan University and part of their squash team.]

TSJ: “‘Family Guy’ or ‘The Simpsons’”?

I can’t stop laughing once I start watching Family Guy, but I grew up on the Simpsons (and it’s probably more appropriate for kids, which is my business…).

TSJ: “Apart from raising money, what has been the major hurdle to overcome in order to start the program?”

I just graduated from business school, and I did not anticipate how quickly I would be putting what I learned to use! While this may seem like “just an after-school program” on the surface, we have in fact started a full-fledged business. Incorporating Racquet Up Detroit, filing for tax exemption from the IRS, establishing corporate by-laws, binding insurance coverage, developing an accounting and payroll system, and soon enough, hiring staff—all the little details are incredibly time consuming! But these elements have provided me with a great learning experience at the same time.

TSJ: “Your worst squash moment?”

I’ve had way too many “up 2-love in games, 7-0 in the 3rd, only to lose in 5 games” moments, but I would have to say that getting hit in the face with my opponent’s backswing, and getting knocked out was probably my worst moment. On-lookers said I hit the floor like a sack of potatoes…

TSJ: “And of course, the most important question we are all dying to know: When you were little, who was your favorite superhero?”

Easy—Batman. He defended a whole city without super-powers. Just a lot of money, a great butler, and some amazing gadgets. And rumor has it that Bruce Wayne had a court in the Bat Cave and was an A-level squash player.

Thank you to Derek for spending time to answer all these questions. To find out more about the "Racquet Up Detroit" you can contact Derek at derek@racquetup.org or call 313-600-9593 and go to the website http://www.racquetup.org/ . This wonderful program needs all the support it can get through sponsorship, donations, and volunteer help.

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