Klever Rivas, 13, center, and Domingo Tejada, 13, play squash at the Lenfest Center in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Sakora Miller remembers being puzzled when strangers visited her gym class in tough west Philadelphia and offered to teach the kids a sport.

Everyone already knew how to play basketball, the most popular game in the neighborhood, she recalled thinking. What else is there?

“They were, like, [it’s] squash,” she said. “And I was, like, ‘I’m not learning that. It’s not for me.’ ”

But a funny thing happened: Miller turned out to be pretty good at squash. She has just become the first graduate hired full time at SquashSmarts, the after-school program she joined as a seventh-grader in 2004.

Inner cities are not typical havens for squash, which is like racquetball and is often considered a sport for wealthy people. Yet SquashSmarts is among 15 clubs nationwide using the game to help underprivileged students through exercise and academic support.

The clubs serve about 1,400 urban students — a small segment of the school population, but one that’s exposed to intensive mentoring, travel opportunities and community service.

Squash’s popularity has jumped dramatically in the United States, from about 600,000 players in 2007 to nearly 1.3 million in 2012, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The game is often played in private schools and athletic clubs.

Today, many squash lovers enjoy seeing the game’s appeal broaden, said Tim Wyant, executive director of the New York-based National Urban Squash & Education Association.

A former squash pro started the first urban program in Boston in 1995 by pairing fitness with tutoring to keep at-risk students from dropping out. The idea spread to Philadelphia and New York.

In 2005, the inner-city groups formed the organization overseen by Wyant to organize tournaments and standardize programs. The association later added 11 clubs and plans to start programs in four other cities.

SquashSmarts in Philadelphia serves about 120 students and furnishes uniforms, equipment, snacks and academic space. Private donors and foundations provide nearly all of the club’s $570,000 annual budget, Executive Director Stephen Gregg said.

SquashSmarts recruits its players from public schools, many of which can’t afford to offer nontraditional sports. It tracks participants’ fitness, grade-point averages and college placements. In a district with a high dropout rate, all those who stayed in the club for seven years have graduated on time and have been accepted by a college, Gregg said.

Even with the growing popularity, some kids are still hesitant.

Joshua Smith, 13, was a skeptic when recruiters visited his middle school last year. His first thought: “What is squash? That’s stupid.”

“And then I tried it,” the eighth-
grader said, “and I love it now.”

Associated Press