By Janelle Richards
Wearing athletic gear and her clear protective glasses, 19-year-old Rakey Drammeh groaned as she stepped onto the squash court.
"Ah! I feel like I haven't played in so long," Drammeh shouted. She picked up a racquet, swinging her arms back and forth, waiting for her opponent to arrive.
Six years ago, Drammeh had never heard of squash.
She learned about the sport in seventh grade while sitting in an auditorium at the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem, listening to the Street Squash staff explain their after school program.
"I was with my dad and he was like, 'You know, you should do something while you're here...' and I was like, ‘What is squash? What are you getting me into?’" said Drammeh.
Within a few weeks Drammeh joined the program, where she received her first racquet, and a pair of protective glasses.
Now a sophomore environmental studies major at Bates College in Maine, Drammeh came back for a visit to play with some of the alums who benefited from the program in the same way she did.
"I kept going and going and I really got into the sport," said Drammeh. "I got a lot better and I met so many friends... I thought I can do this, this is fun."
When Drammeh entered the program she was a B-minus student. But after several tutoring sessions (the after school program is split between playing squash and homework help), she began getting mostly A's.
Several other major U.S. cities have similar squash programs -- including Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Diego. They all focus on academic excellence. And at Street Squash, high school students are able to take SAT prep classes.
According to the National Urban Squash Education Association, in recent years 93 percent of urban squash graduates have gone on to earn a college degree.
Harlem's Street Squash program was started in 1999 by George Polsky, a former Harvard squash player, who now serves as the organization's executive director.
"I would say almost all of the kids who participate in the program have never heard of [the sport]," said Polsky. "[This] is positive, in that one of the goals we're trying to achieve here is to introduce these kids to new experiences... and squash can be a very effective vehicle to do that where other sports may not be."
But initially, finding students to participate in the program wasn't easy. Polsky and his team visited several Harlem schools and tried to sell them the program by telling students they would receive a racquet and a ball.
"I think probably in the beginning most of the kids did it because they were intrigued or maybe there weren't a lot of other options for things to do and they just wanted to try it out," said Polsky.
Eventually they recruited 28 students and were able to borrow practice space from different schools.
Now the program has nearly 150 participants and their own squash center in Harlem.
Ninth grader Nick Little joined Street Squash two years ago.
"My older brother joined first and I used to mock the name of it," said Little. "Then I came and I saw how fun it was, so I started coming and I just started loving this place. I'm always here, always trying to get involved in the program."
On the court, Little tossed the ball up and adjusted his blue T-shirt as he swung his racquet.
The ball hit the wall full force, and Little prepared for another swing.
"I see myself playing until I graduate, maybe in college," Little said. "I feel free on the court, nobody can tell me what to do, if I'm mad I can take my anger out on the ball."
Street Squash's goal is to provide long-term support to students, said Polsky. The mentors build relationships that last through college, he added. Every student that has participated has graduated from high school, and 85 percent of students who go on to college are on track to graduate on time.
Rokya Samake, 18, a freshman at Bates College, joined Street Squash when she was in seventh grade. At the time, she said, she was an average student who did not put in extra time to become an excellent student.
"It definitely gives you another set of motivation and you know these people are behind you," said Samake. "You don't want to let them down so my grades from middle school to high school changed tremendously and it's a lot of why I'm at the college I'm at today."
Playing squash was an added bonus for Samake, a sport she grew to love.
"The program definitely made me love the sport," Samake added. "I mean, now I'm playing on the squash team at my college."
To learn more about Harlem's Street Squash program, visit their website: http://www.streetsquash.org/