Hunting Park: Squash Promotes a Youth Enrichment Program

Katie Bicknese, SquashSmarts program director, helped a student with his homework.

The Lenfest Center is one of two locations for the SquashSmarts program in Philadelphia. Driving down the 3800 block of 10th Street, one might not expect to see the massive building where the lives of local children have been enriched for the past four years. The rundown boarded up homes that surround the spirited center have been known for drug activity, but the children know that they have a safe place to learn and play at Lenfest.

Katie Bicknese, SquashSmarts program director, helped a student with his homework.

“Many after-school programs help serve kids,” said Katie Bicknese, SquashSmarts program director. “Ours is special because we really have those one-on-one relationships with the kids. We’re like a big family, especially for the kids who might not have a family of their own.”

Every Monday through Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. the students gather on the second floor of Lenfest to play squash and take part in academic sessions. Also, on Saturdays everyone meets at the other SquashSmarts location at Drexel University’s, Daskalakis Athletic Center, from 10 a.m. to noon for special events.

“Our Saturday events vary from not only squash games, but volunteer opportunities and other leadership activities that involve teamwork,” Bicknese said.

For example some events they have previously participated in have been planting flowers at the Hunting Park Recreation Center, the Philly AIDS Walk, family outings at Phillies’ games and national squash conferences.

There are about 80 children currently attending the program. The range of participate in SquashSmarts is between sixth and 12th grade. Last weekend, a round of tryouts began to select up to another 20 kids for the after-school program. There are three different rounds of tryouts the kids are asked to attend. The tryouts include three main areas in which the children are tested: physical fitness, squash playing ability and academics. However, Bicknese said even though all of these tests are important, there is one major underlying skill in which their truly looking for.

Justin Roebuck, SquashSmarts senior captain, warmed up for a squash match.

“At the end of the day, we’re not looking for the top athlete or the smartest kid,” Bicknese said. “Through these tryouts we simply want to see how well the kids work in a group and interact with each other. Sometimes the football stars will wonder why they weren’t chosen for the program. It was clearly not because they weren’t great at sports, but because maybe they had a negative attitude and didn’t work well with the other kids.”

Word of mouth has helped the program grow

“I remember hearing about SquashSmarts at school,” said Justin Roebuck, the senior SquashSmarts captain. “I decided to check it out and several years later I am really happy that I did.”

SquashSmarts has a website and fliers that they hand out but as Bicknese has pointed out through her experience, the best source of spreading the word has been through word of mouth from their students.

“Our best referral base is our current kids,” Bicknese said. “We had over 60 kids tryout last weekend, and probably a good half of them had told us that one of their friends was already in the program. Our kids are our best recruiters.”

Bicknese has been with SquashSmarts since the Lenfest Center opened four years ago. Throughout those years she has seen many students come and go, and many are still present, but certain stories will always stay with her.

Safe sneakers the kids were given to wear during squash matches.

“I would say I do this job for the ‘Aha’ moments,” Bicknese said. “You know you’re doing something right when you can really see the kids open up and trust you.”

One of Bicknese’s fondest memories was from a student who started in seventh grade at a second grade reading level. He was one of the more difficult students behavior-wise but through much effort she was able to gain his trust and break through to him. Bicknese and a couple of other students, including her problem student, began having pizza study groups once a week where they would really focus on pronunciation and putting all of the pieces together. The student, currently in tenth grade, is now one of the better readers his age and is thriving both inside and out of the program.

“We really count on volunteers,” Bicknese said. “It’s a great opportunity for both young and older adults from the area to get involved with their neighborhood’s youth.”

Since most of SquashSmarts’ funding comes from donations and fundraising, it is really important for the organization to have help from people who are willing to volunteer their time. They have eight different squash courts and two nice sized computer classrooms. All of the equipment and supplies are provided for the children as well as their own lockers. Each child is also provided with a pair of non-skid sneakers to keep the kids safe and the courts in good shape.

As Brett Camarda, fellow staff member of Bicknese said, “There’s always more that can be done,” but it seems like SquashSmarts and its members have a rather promising future.

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