Executive Director of National Urban Squash and Education Association
When you think of the racquet sport of squash, do you …
A) think of a hard rubber ball whizzing past your ears and pinging off a high wall with a resounding thwap before ricocheting at blazing speed behind you?
B) think of an elite sport that, like polo, is reserved for the affluent? Or …
C) Do you not even know what squash is?
For most inner-city kids, the answer is C. And Greg Zaff, Executive Director of National Urban Squash and Education Association (NUSEA), is doing something about that. But more than that, he is making squash a springboard for achievement and opportunity for youth who might otherwise have neither.
Discovering a New Angle for the Sport
A native of the Boston, Mass., area, Greg was introduced to the sport when he was a freshman at the Belmont Hill School and discovered that he loved the game. "I had been an intense tennis player, and I really got into squash," Greg recalls, adding modestly, "I got very good at it, the way anyone gets good at something if they do it all the time."
In fact, he got so good at it, he played competitively not only at Belmont Hill School and later at Williams College, he even joined the professional circuit and rose to a career high ranking of #2 in the world. "I played professionally for eight years," he says. "And it was during those years that the seed was planted for the potential for the sport." Many of the venues in which he played were private clubs, which made the sport seem exclusive and inaccessible to most people. And that made him wonder "how cool it would be to open up that wall, so to speak."
Double-Teaming Passions for Squash and Service
The idea of creating a squash-based youth program for the inner city evolved gradually for Greg. He knew he wanted his next career move to involve the public sector, so he interned briefly with various state agencies before enrolling in the Kennedy School of Government, where he earned a Masters degree in Public Policy.
It was a paper he wrote while there, entitled "Bringing Squash Down from the Ivory Tower, the Creation of an Urban Squash and Education Program," that became the blueprint for the country's first-ever urban youth center featuring squash and academics: SquashBusters.
Helping Kids Get in the Game
SquashBusters is a demanding year-round program that goes beyond the athletic demands of squash to help steer dedicated youth toward academic accomplishment, community service, and mentoring over a long period of time (sixth grade through high school).
The program officially began in September 1996 with 24 students from public middle schools in Boston and Cambridge, MA. The students, many of whom had never even held a squash racquet, were required to attend 90 practices over the course of the school year. In addition, they received academic tutoring and community service opportunities.
Today, the program serves both high-achieving students and those who are struggling—the common denominator being character and commitment. Take, for example, Yuleissy Ramirez, a sixth grade, inner-city daughter of a single mother. A straight-A student, she was already very motivated and a hard worker when she joined SquashBusters. Through the program, she was able to enroll in Milton Academy, a prestigious prep school, where—"through her own hard work," Greg points out—she became an honor roll student and captain of the squash team.
A tougher case was Muhmud Jalloh (nicknamed MJ), an immigrant from Guinea who suffered from learning disabilities, had trouble adjusting socially, and spoke very little English. "But," says Greg, "he had a spirit of hard work and commitment, and a deep sense of appreciation for the opportunities that were given to him." When the time came for MJ to enroll in high school, the SquashBusters academic staff lobbied on his behalf with the Boston public school department and were able to secure a place for him in a specialized school—on a full scholarship, without which he probably wouldn't be able to attend. Today, MJ has graduated from high school and is now about to start his freshman year at Ben Franklin Institute. He is also this year's recipient of the SquashBuster of the Year award for attitude and achievement.
Urban Squash Gets a Big Bounce from NUSEA
Given successes like these, the program has grown exponentially and even saw the construction of a dedicated squash and academic facility, built in conjunction with Boston's Northeastern University. Further, the SquashBusters model Greg developed has since been replicated in Harlem, the Bronx, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Haven, Baltimore, Denver, San Diego, and Detroit, serving 1,000 young people. As youth from these various programs met for tournaments around the country, it became clear to Greg that there was a need for a more overarching, national organization with its own board of directors. And he knew he was the one to lead it.
NUSEA was founded in 2005 by the heads of these urban squash organizations. In September 2007, Greg left SquashBusters to become NUSEA's full-time Executive Director. The ultimate aim of the organization is to oversee the creation and longevity of many urban squash programs so that thousands of young people across America benefit every day from its athletic, educational, and community enrichment activities.
Support from Grand Circle Foundation from the Beginning
Through all these years of serving inner-city youth through the sport of squash, Greg observes that his association with Grand Circle Foundation has been "the most important one to me." He recalls meeting Alan Lewis at a squash event soon after SquashBusters was launched. "He told me that he was big into philanthropy and big into inner-city kids and to call him," Greg says. "I had no idea how big into those things he was!"
From one of SquashBusters' earliest and biggest supporters, Grand Circle Foundation has since become one of a handful of major financial backers of urban squash nationally, according to Greg. SquashBusters members have also become involved in events sponsored by the Foundation's community service partners in Boston, and Greg is proud that several SquashBusters participants have been selected for the Foundation's Next Generation Leaders leadership development program.
Alan and Harriet Lewis have also become close personal friends. "They've been loving and supportive of me apart from SquashBusters," Greg says. Winner of the 2003 Lewis Changing People's Lives Award, he has received travel-based leadership training opportunities and also served on the Foundation's Community Advisory Group, a coalition of leaders from the Foundation and its long-term nonprofit partners in Boston formed to help resolve common issues and share best practices. "I really like it that the Lewises believe in collaboration and partnership," he says.
After all, to this athlete, it's the team spirit that's most important.