This past summer, Sanders-Clyde Middle School seventh-grader Javier Gathers boarded an airplane and traveled to Princeton University, where he stayed, without family, for a weeklong squash tournament.
He came back a more confident young man with higher aspirations.
“I want to go to college, and I'm thinking about going to Prince- ton,” Gathers says.
That hope is among the early fruits of Chucktown Squash, a private, nonprofit urban squash program started two years ago.
At the time, it was the nation's 10th such program but the first of its kind in the Southeast. Other cities that have used squash (a high-speed sport on an indoor court with four walls, a racket and a small rubber ball) as a catalyst for higher education and better opportunities include New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
In its third season in Charleston, the program has grown from 16 to 28 students from Sanders-Clyde, who live on the East Side of downtown Charleston.
“We're excited about the traction from the Sanders-Clyde community,” says Chucktown's new executive director, Sam Candler. “Ideally, as the program grows, and we get support and more people know about it, and we have the resources, we'll be able to recruit from other schools.”
“Our goal is to take those guys from fifth grade all the way through high school, and ideally we get the same results as National Urban Squash and Education Association, which is 100 percent high school graduation and 93 percent college enrollment.”
But Candler is pointing to signs of the programs, such as an improvement in the first quarter English language arts average grade of Chucktown participants from 79 in 2011 to 92 this year.
He also noted that Chucktown, which requires participants to have an academic average of 80, had a 94 percent retention rate this year from last.
“It's incredible,” says Candler, who quit his job as an aircraft salesman to become executive director.
The Minkowski sisters
He is joined in the effort by his wife, Carolyn “Lynnie” Minkowski Candler, the program director.
The former squash professional coaches the kids but coordinates tutors, leads enrichment programs and even provides healthy snacks.
Lynnie is the sister of Anna Minkowski, who was the first paid staffer for Chucktown Squash.The sisters, who have made a name for themselves in the mid-Atlantic squash world, worked on the program together last year before Anna moved to get married.
One major boost for Chucktown Squash since its formation has been a partnership with the College of Charleston and visiting health professor Michael Hemphill. Students in Hemphill's classes “volunteer” as tutors and get college credits, along with others, including some Porter-Gaud high school students.
Squash as catalyst
So from Monday to Thursday every week, the kids in Chucktown get at least an hour of exercise, some combination of playing squash, running or doing calisthenics in “boot camps” at the Johnson Center and then head into a classroom to do homework and study one-on-one with a college student.
“Our students are basically in a college immersion atmosphere here,” Sam says. “College wasn't on the radar for most of these kids, and now they are mixing with college students almost every day.”
And that's not all. The mind-body enrichment goes into nutrition instruction. Sam says Lynnie not only provides healthy snacks but gives short talks on health, from what “super foods” are to the importance of heart health.
Chucktown also participates in community activities. Most recently, several ran in the Medical University of South Carolina's Health Charleston Challenge 2-Mile run.
And then there's the squash. Participants, who also play Saturdays at MUSC, not only develop a healthy love of competition in a highly strategic game but get to travel to tournaments in Atlanta and Baltimore, where they are exposed to new worlds and people. Opening up their eyes is one of our main goals,” Candler says.
“Frankly, our biggest setback is that it's squash and many people don't know about squash, but it's one of those sports that will get you in college, (and) there's no doubt these kids can play at a scholarship level.”