SquashSmarts Celebrates 20th Anniversary at U.S. Open

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l-r: Destine McCleary, Briahn Green, Joshua Morales, Debby Dowlin, Jeanie Shanahan, Zachery Greene, Tempest Bowden, Stephen Gregg, Carmen Santiago, Edward Rosario, Niyanna Fields, Aiden Greene, Jose Rubert-Zayas. Samuel Wright, Megan Douglas.

More than three hundred SquashSmarts students, staff members, parents, donors, advisors and board members celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the award-winning Philadelphia urban squash and education program at the 2021 U.S. Open Squash Championships presented by Truist. The gathering was held at the newly-opened Arlen Specter US Squash Center in Philadelphia on the campus of Drexel University.

Steve Gregg, the Executive Director of SquashSmarts, welcomed a dozen members of the SquashSmarts community onto the court for a mid-evening ceremony. He thanked many of the supporters of the program, including one special friend of the program who had a deep impact on SquashSmarts: Arlen Specter. In 2003, when the program had a budget of $80,000, Senator Specter was able to secure a $50,000 federal earmark for the program. “It was a little-known fact, but it was a massive lifesaver for SquashSmarts,” Gregg said, “and now, nearly two decades later, we are a $1.8 million operation working with 369 kids and 100 alumni in a $35 million center. That is a pretty special return on that investment.”

Carmen Santiago, who worked as a staff assistant in Senator Specter’s Philadelphia office from 1997-2007, completed the connection between Arlen Specter and SquashSmarts. One of her jobs was finding partners for Specter’s daily squash game. “Senator Specter was a wonderful, wonderful boss and friend,” Santiago said. “His passion was squash. Like many of you, he needed to have that squash game every day.”

Santiago’s grandchildren, Joshua Morales and Jose Rubert-Zayas, joined SquashSmarts as sixth graders. Both spent seven years in the program, and both have recently returned to join SquashSmarts’ staff. Morales is the squash and fitness director for the West Philadelphia high school cohort while Rubert-Zayas is the squash and fitness director for the middle school cohort at the Lenfest Center, SquashSmarts’ eight-court facility in North Philadelphia.

“SquashSmarts saved the lives of my grandchildren,” Santiago said. “They are here today because of this program. My grandchildren are part of this family. I hope that we can stay united, remain like this, to help our communities. Today I appreciate it so much. I love you all.”

Founded in 2001 originally out of Drexel University’s squash courts in West Philadelphia, SquashSmarts has just begun its twenty-first season. Beginning in 2021, SquashSmarts will operate and expand its West Philadelphia program out of the Specter Center’s Learning & Innovation Center.

A 501(c)3 non-profit, SquashSmarts is a free intensive out-of-school academic and athletic mentoring program changing the lives of Philadelphia’s public-school students. Students are recruited in middle school from Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary, Esperanza Charter Academy, Science Leadership Academy, Carver School for Engineering & Science and Overbrook Educational Center. The program has students attend practices three days a week for seven years and provides critical support for students once they graduate from high school.

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