Leaving Boston to go to College After seven years in SquashBusters, GREAT colleges await

Left to right: Judy braga, greg zaff and monete johnson in 2000.
Left to right: Judy braga, greg zaff and monete johnson in 2000.

By Kirsten Carlson
Photos courtesy of SquashBusters

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

-Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
By Dr. Seuss

An excerpt from one of the most popular graduation gifts—no matter what one is graduating from—whether it be nursery school, nursing school, high school or SquashBusters (the last one isn’t known for sure, but it wouldn’t make a bad gift). The first class to complete seven years in SquashBusters has graduated from the program, and from high school (it used to just be a 3-year middle school only program). Even more impressive is that nine of them are going off to college in the fall. Colleges like Vassar, Trinity, Bates, Temple and Northeastern. Sounds like a list of prep-school graduates. Well, a few former SquashBusters did go to prep schools, and they are doing well too.

SquashBusters held its first practice in October 1996 at the Harvard Club in Boston. In July 2003, the Badger & Rosen SquashBusters Center opened at Northeastern University. With its own home and more space, SquashBusters began its high school regimen with the students leaving the program this year.

“The kids that are graduating this year made a real commitment to SquashBusters,” said Derek Aguirre, SquashBusters’ Program Director. “They could have bowed out and decided to go home, or gone and played another sport. But these kids made a deep commitment.”

That commitment over the years totaled up to more than 800 squash practices, 1600 hours of academic enrichment, 40 community service projects and at least 20 cultural learning field trips.

For Judy Braga, No. 2 on the SquashBusters’ girls’ team, her favorite memories came from the community service projects the team did together. “We would do projects two or three times a month,” Braga said. “I liked working on the food projects, and putting all the food together for the homeless with my teammates. Just knowing all of us were working together to help the better good, not only in our area, but in the United States.”

Patrick williams in sixth grade.
Patrick williams in sixth grade.

Braga, who will attend Springfield College, said being in SquashBusters, and being around such a variety of people, helped her to understand others. “I think I gained the ability to grow in relationships. I learned to be open to other people that I wouldn’t usually talk to, people that have the same interests as me—such as squash or liking the same subjects in school—or even listening to the same type of music or liking the same TV shows.”

Regarding the entire experience Jonathan Rebello, who will attend U-Mass Lowell on a full scholarship, said: “It was definitely hard, but it was completely worth it. It was three days a week, three hours at a time. And it was hard because I had a job too. But it was definitely worth it because they have been helping me for so much of my life. I just made a few sacrifices to stay on the team.”

Part of the help Rebello and others received was with their college applications. Aguirre and Aisha Shah, SquashBusters’ High School Squash Director, played a big part in this process, which lasted for months.

“It was really hard to work with them and figure out all their applications and essays, and staying on top of them. It was almost like parenting,” Shah said. “But four months later, we are sitting here and seeing all the schools they got into.”

And when a SquashBuster found out they got in somewhere, word spread fast.

“I would see the kids run into the building with their acceptance letters and show all the staff,” said Chris Smith, who has worked at SquashBusters in various capacities over the years and now is Northeastern University’s Men’s and Women’s Squash Coach. “If there was a wall for them to post it on, I’m sure they would have.”

That wall would include letters from Boston schools such as the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, which Justin Austin will attend, and Bunker Hill for Steven Cotter. Letters from Temple and Vassar addressed to Mikhail Darlington and Jose Rivera, respectively, would be there too. A letter from High Point University in North Carolina for Nick Cummings would also be tacked up.

Besides exposing kids that would otherwise not have had the chance, to both squash and academic assistance, the students get some core values instilled into them. I CARE; the acronym that represents what SquashBusters is all about. Integrity, Caring for others, Appreciation, Respect and Effort.

“More than squash and the academic part, those values are what we drill into them all the time,” Shah said. “More than other things, those are what are going to get them somewhere in life. And whether they choose to go to college, or they find something else they are passionate about and go in that direction, those values are what help them.”

Jonathan Rebello helps out at the greater boston food bank.
Jonathan Rebello helps out at the greater boston food bank.

Monete Johnson, who is ranked No. 69 in the Girl’s U19, took advantage of everything that came her way. Next year she is headed to Trinity, though the capacity to which she will be involved in squash is still up in the air. SquashBusters presents the students with extra opportunities as well.

“Monete participated in Summer Search, a program for students in Boston that show promise and need a little extra help to take advantage of their strengths,” said Aguirre. “The first year she went on an Outward Bound trip to Minnesota. The next year she went to South Africa. We nominated her and encouraged her to go for it, but she accomplished it on her own.”

An older Williams (front), played no. 2 for SquashBusters and will head to Bates in the fall. Pedro Souza, who played no. 1 on the team and is ranked no. 61 in the BU19s, will play for Northeastern.
An older Williams (front), played no. 2 for SquashBusters and will head to Bates in the fall. Pedro Souza, who played no. 1 on the team and is ranked no. 61 in the BU19s, will play for Northeastern.

And though every SquashBusters graduating this year has had help and support through the years from a strong, united staff, not one staff member will take credit for anything that the kids, who often become like family to them, have accomplished.

“It’s not the primary goal of SquashBusters to produce top level squash players, but it obviously happens,” Smith said. “These kids are college-level players and they will be instantly contributing on their teams next fall. But that is not what this is all about. SquashBusters, and other urban programs, are generating bright, hard-working, and committed student-athletes who have off-the-charts levels of character. On college teams, that’s more valuable than how good their rails are. Rails can be improved quickly, but character, effort, and commitment takes a whole lot longer to develop.”

As these now former SquashBusters head off to college, some to continue their squash careers, the impact they made will be felt on the people who watch them go.

“We’ve been with them for so long,” said Shah. “You want to be there with them for the first year. You want it to be a positive experience for them, and it isn’t always. But they know we are always here for them.”

Aguirre added, much like a loving parent would, “I’m very excited for them. I’m nervous for them. I’m nervous to let them go. But I am very proud of them.”