Tuesday, September 25, 2012


This summer, I had the privilege of attending the Racquet Up Detroit end of season banquet. I was rather stunned when I entered the dining hall that evening at the amount of people that there were. Considering that the program has roughly 40 kids, there must been over 200 present. And that’s where the true success of Racquet Up Detroit lies. It’s not only changing and influencing the lives of the kids themselves, it is making a substantial difference in their families lives too.

The food for the event was cooked and bought in by the families. More than enough to go around. Speeches were made, thank yous were sincere, important donors and volunteers highly praised, but the function centered on the kids themselves for their achievements and advancements over the past year - not just with their squash but also with their academics. The awards ceremony was the highlight. It felt a little like the Oscars where they announce the nominees, then present the winner with their trophy. It was incredible to see the excitement in the kids as they were recognized and rewarded for their efforts and the proud look of their family members. Creating wonderful memories, that not too long ago, would have been unthinkable.

Racquet Up Detroit is only 2 years old, but it has clearly significantly changed the lives of many already. The man behind the accomplishment is way to humble to take most of the credit – but he definitely deserves it nonetheless. Even though I have already interviewed him in the “Meet a Member” series, he warrants a second round.


TSJ: Two years in. There are no doubt many highlights during this short time at Racquet Up Detroit, but I am going to ask you to pick the one that stands out the most to you and describe it to us.

Well, we won the Midwest Challenge this year against Chicago and Cleveland, and we have had many inspiring personal and academic success stories, but I think the big highlight for me was our Year-end Party last year.  It's our annual potluck dinner and awards ceremony and it brings together our students, their families, friends, and teachers, our volunteers, donors, community partners, etc., nearly 200 people all in one room to celebrate the accomplishments of the year. We give out awards for attendance, academic performance, squash, fitness, and character, and have a moving slide show which showcases all the fun we had.  There is so much goodwill and positive energy in the room, making it a great way to end the school year.  I get a little emotional at this event each year...

 TSJ: Academics are an enormous part of the program. Is it more important than the squash and tell us about the staff you have looking after this side of RUD.

We focus on three primary things at Racquet Up:  Education, Health, and Character.  I can't tell you that one is more important than the others, and in fact they all work together.  Squash promotes health, but it also promotes academic attainment (to play squash in college, you have to get in to a good school!) and character development.  We have a holistic approach which aims to support kids in all aspects of their lives.

That said, yes, academics are a major focus of our program.  We have a literacy component which promotes our kids' reading, writing, and speaking skills, and we also help them with their homework and do academic skill-building activities.  They know when they sign up for the program that they will be spending a lot of time learning in the classroom.  We are very fortunate to have a great Academic Coordinator, Patrick Morris--he's a recent University of Michigan grad with a passion for Detroit and helping kids become all they can be.  He has been with us from day one, and is doing an incredible job. Check out some of the student writing Patrick has helped inspire:  http://racquetup.org/read/
Connie Loh, our Program Coordinator, moved here from Texas last year and quickly took on a leadership role at Racquet Up, supporting Patrick in the classroom and me on the courts.  Combine these two outstanding staff with over 50 volunteers (including many DAC members), and we've got the kids covered! 

TSJ: You have made a home at the Northwest Activities Center. We recently met to discuss improvements to the facilities. Please tell us what the current plans are short and long term.

The Northwest Activities Center (NWAC) is a great home for us.  It is located in the heart of the community, within blocks of our two partner schools, and walking distance from many of our students' homes.  The facility was a major squash club when it was the Jewish Community Center in Detroit, and we have helped breathe some new life into the courts where there were not many squash balls bouncing when we got here 2 years ago.  

This summer, thanks to Mick, and Rob Barr, we were able to execute a plan to spruce up the courts.  We sanded the floors, re-painted the lines, and even added some really cool Racquet Up tin magnets to each court (thanks Mick and Rob!).  It was a great example of what we can achieve for the benefit of kids when we all put our heads together.  The kids could not believe their eyes when we revealed the spiffy new courts last week.

We hope to make NWAC our home for many years to come.  There are plenty of courts there to serve our current team of kids, and probably some more in the future with a few more upgrades to the existing courts.  With 40 kids in our program (all certified squash fanatics now), the courts are hopping, and we have our hands full, but stay tuned! 

TSJ: You are dying of starvation. What is the one food that you would rather die than have to eat to survive?

I like living quite a bit, so there's not much I wouldn't eat.  Maybe raw beef...?

TSJ: Is RUD looking at expanding – i.e. getting more kids into the program? If so, how do you plan on accommodating them all?

See above...but hopefully we'll be in a position to expand within the next couple years.  We think the Northwest Activities Center will be able to accommodate growth, but we'll also need more staff, and... of course... more money.  DAC members have been central to this effort, and will continue to be as we think about growing.

TSJ: What’s the one item in Derek Aguirre’s __________ that you can’t do without?
a.      Fridge:          fresh fruits and vegetables
b.      Wardrobe:     Racquet Up t-shirt
c.       DVD collection:   The Wire (seasons 1-5)
d.      CD collection:      Elliott Smith's Figure 8
e.       Office drawer:     Pilot G2 pen
f.        Pocket:       Palm smartphone (don't laugh...no iPhone, no Droid)

TSJ: Tell us about some of the extracurricular activities that the RUD kids and their families have become involved in.

We volunteer in the community (Greening of Detroit and Gleaners Food Bank), visit colleges (you name it...we've been there), attend cultural events (Alvin Ailey at the Detroit Opera, DIA), watch the Motor City Open and Pro Squash Tour events, and travel to competitions from Birmingham and Cleveland to New York City and Massachusetts.  We have our own mini-bus, so we hit the road a lot.  Seeing the world outside one's neighborhood is a big part of youth development.

TSJ: What would you be doing now if you were not involved in RUD?

This is a crazy question for me, because I really love what I do, but I would probably be trying to start a small business here in Detroit.  There is a truly supportive climate for entrepreneurs right now in the city--I think it would be very exciting and meaningful to be hustling to start something here.   

TSJ: I know these kids look up to you as a mentor / hero / savior. (As much as you won’t admit to it!) How much time outside of the program itself do you spend with them?

This is the fun part--I really enjoy spending time with them, so it doesn't feel like work.  It's easy to call up a few eager players to set up an impromptu squash round robin at the Center, or even to give me a hand with a project in the office, or wash my car (kidding!). I don't keep track of hours, which is probably a good thing.
TSJ: What was the kid’s reaction to the PST tournament? Better, worse, or the same level of enthusiasm as with the PSA events they also witness?

The kids loved both events.  This is the cool thing about squash for kids--you can have close access to the top players in the game. They were totally inspired and in awe.  But they did like the AC/DC playing between matches at the PST, and the no-let rules kept the matches moving along, which is nice for 6th graders.  We'll be back for sure this year!

TSJ: Word association. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say…
a.      Olympics:     trampolining but not squash???
b.      Detroit Tigers:  keep hope alive
c.       Twilight movies:  haven't seen them
d.      Lady Gaga:     nada
e.       “Conduct Warning!, Mr. Aguirre”:   hope the kids aren't watching
f.        Alien invasion:  teach them squash

TSJ: And the final question to make you squirm, just a tad: What was the worst thing you did at home that got you in trouble with your parents and what was the consequence?

Man, I'm so boring.  Let's see...  I locked my keys in my car while it was still running and they had to bring me an extra set of keys.  In the middle of the night.  Twice.  Consequence:  sleepy, grumpy parents.  Not much of a rebel here.

Once again, I thank Derek for his time and answers. RUD is a fantastic program for our city. And Derek is the perfect man for the job. To find out more about the ‘Racquet Up Detroit’ feel free to contact Derek at derek@racquetup.org  or call 313-600-9593 and go to the website www.racquetup.org . This wonderful program needs all the support it can get through sponsorship, donations, and volunteer help.

Search This Blog