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By Camille Lozano

Each thud from the small, black rubber balls reverberates inside the walls of four squash courts in Sorrento Valley; echoing a promise, to move, to move faster, to move forward.

The intensity of the game—the sweat, strength, multitasking and the ability to overcome obstacles—parallels the journey of the sport’s unique urban players based here in San Diego County. They are underserved youth who are realizing their dreams through Access Youth Academy’s encouragement both on and off the court.

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Volunteer at Access, mentor a young student or visit our facility to learn more about the organization.
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This year marks a decade of commitment toward helping these students achieve their goals. Since the nonprofit’s inception in 2006, Access has seen a 100 percent high school graduation rate for students, and even more impressively, a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Because it’s not just squash that is helping these students achieve, it’s a multi-faceted team that works side-by-side with them, day-by-day to support their interests and keep them motivated.

“We grow old with our students,” Executive Director Renato Paiva says. “As they get older and change, we’re there to provide different services to support their different needs.”

Volunteers support students with individual tutoring to enhance their learning and understanding of current coursework

Access currently works with 45 students through The Preuss School at UC San Diego and is responsible for the students’ physical education and academic assistance.

Preuss exclusively enrolls low-income middle and high school students working to be the first in their families to graduate from college. Access also works with Hoover High and Monroe Clark Middle School students on the weekends. Over the past several years, the organization has been able to work with more than 100 underserved students through funding from San Diego Gas & Electric. SDG&E has contributed toward the academic success of these students and their path toward higher education through Access’ Inspiring Future Leaders program; giving the organization the financial tools they need to equip their students with defined life skills in nutrition, stress management, self-discipline, healthy habits and more.

Students are first introduced to Access in 7th grade, and join the academy’s afterschool enrichment program to learn about the sport of squash and the nonprofit’s Four Pillars of Success: academic achievement, health and wellness, leadership, and social responsibility.

Here’s how it works:

  • Staff members transport students from the campus at UC San Diego after school to the squash facility in Sorrento Valley.
  • About half of the students attend the program on Mondays and Wednesdays, the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The groups alternate Fridays.
  • The group is divided in half again: one section works with tutors on academics in the facility’s classroom while the other group practices squash.
  • Then they switch after an hour, with the program wrapping up around 5 p.m. Some students stay at the facility, and others are taken back to the UC San Diego campus for parent pick-up.

The volunteer tutors who assist the students on a daily basis are personally scouted by Access’ Academic Coordinator Soraya Ramos. Finding the best tutors to fit students needs and finding tutors who are available is a continuous process, Ramos says, but an important one.

“Someone that comes in and wants to fulfill a role here, has to go above and beyond,” she says. “In the nonprofit sector, some people may say ‘I’m working too much,’ but you have to think about what we’re working towards. It requires a lot of heart.”

Students excel both on and off the court with the Access four-pillar approach of Academic Achievement, Health and Wellness, Social Responsibility and Leadership.

At Access, every staff member works tirelessly to help students fulfill a twelve-year plan for their future. When students join the organization, the goal is for them to enjoy physical fitness and appreciation of the sport of squash, and excel in their studies through academic support and the use of time-management and organizational skills.

They hone these skills in their first couple years at the organization in 7th and 8th grade, and continue to employ them in their freshman and sophomore years. By the time they are juniors and seniors, they understand the necessity of having these skills as they continue toward higher education. But the twelve-year plan doesn’t stop there, of course. Students continue with Access as they attend four-year universities and colleges by receiving financial aid assistance, emotional and academic support, and continuing to play squash. Their connections with Access last a lifetime, as upon graduation they are introduced to an extensive network of business partners and Access supporters.

Students are pushed hard at Access, with the close-knit environment spurring appreciation and desire for success. They join Access for a variety of reasons: because it means having a family and a team behind them, having a safe space dedicated to just academics, and because they are passionate about playing squash and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Access is their second home.

Peer support and mentoring is an important part of helping students reach their goals

This year several Access students will graduate from Ivy League schools, including Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. One student will be graduating from Dartmouth College next year.

“It really shows how we’ve impacted our students,” Access’ Development Director Ryan Ginard says. “They know where they’ve come from and they know where they’re going but they also realize what part we played in their lives and how they can now give back and change their communities and the world.”

Currently, the organization is supported through funding from approximately 100 active donors, 46 volunteers, and nine staff members. Access hopes to expand this model of success to other students in need in San Diego County. The organization has plans in the works to develop a squash and educational facility in southeast San Diego, to impact more lives in the coming year.

But in the meantime, more help is always needed from volunteers and tutoring to funding to continue to make higher education a reality for these well deserving youth-in-need, and to advance the success of Access Youth Academy.

“We have found a peculiar and unique way to help students through a non-popular sport,” Paiva says. “It’s kind of odd, and so we attract different kids—the ones that people maybe don’t see or don’t believe in, those who may not otherwise have this opportunity. They come to us and we help them. Our organization is small, but we are very strong.”

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