Most days, Darian Rich can be seen hanging around SquashWise's tightly spaced office at Meadow Mill in the Woodbury neighborhood, helping mentor middle school and high school students.
SquashWise is a youth development program that provides long-term academic and social support to public school students in Baltimore City by combining academic tutoring with instruction in the sport of squash, according to its website.
Just six months ago, Rich and his twin sister, Eryn, were part of SquashWise's first graduating class, which consisted of five high school graduates. Darian and Eryn Rich joined SquashWise when they were in middle school.
Through SquashWise, Darian and Eryn Rich, now 18, enjoyed athletic and academic opportunities that would not have been available to them otherwise. Without SquashWise, Darian Rich believes getting his high school diploma would have been much more difficult.
"I don't think I would have made it out of high school [without SquashWise]," said Darian Rich, who graduated from Polytechnic Institute in 2015 and currently attends the Community College of Baltimore County. "I'm not a bad student, but high school wasn't really working for me. … My entire four years at SquashWise, my grades got better with the help of my mentors and desire to compete in the tournaments."
Co-founded by executive director Abby Markoe in 2007, SquashWise's mission is to achieve 100 percent high school graduation and college access for its 60 student-athletes in grades six through 12. As part of that initiative, tryouts are held to determine a student's attitude and willingness to learn and grow.
"We're a really long-term program," Markoe said, "and the expectation is that they go all way through college with us. … To see students like our graduates, who have committed for six, seven, eight years and beyond, it's really important they see the product of their commitment and what their efforts can do."
For program director Matt Skarzynski, it goes without saying that Darian and Eryn Rich are two of the program's brightest stalwarts. His hope, along with SquashWise's, is to remain actively involved in the graduates' lives well beyond high school and college.
"It's a learning experience to work with students we don't get to see every day and figuring out how we can still support and be involved in their lives," Skarzynski said.
"… Now, it's a whole other journey to see how, as a family here at SquashWise, we grow and support each other in those next steps of their lives."
Eryn Rich, who also graduated from Poly in 2015, is currently enrolled at McDaniel, where she will begin the second semester of her freshman year this spring. To this day, along with her brother, she is still involved with the program and keeps the staff and her mentor informed on her transition to college.
"I just feel like [SquashWise] is still very helpful," Eryn Rich said. "Compared to other kids who left high school and came to college, I think I am much more prepared."
All told, the five seniors who graduated last year completed their first semester of college during the fall. Between them, they earned 18 college acceptance letters and about $480,000 in scholarship and financial aid packages, according to SquashWise high school director Hope Blinkoff.
Blinkoff, who joined SquashWise out of college in 2010, assists students with preparing for the ACT and SAT and college essays while making sure their financial situations are in order. Seeing Darian and Eryn Rich mature through the program has been especially gratifying for Blinkoff.
"I think [Darian and Eryn Rich] are such a large part of why I wanted to stay in Baltimore, because I was so invested in their success," said Blinkoff, who played squash at Vassar College in Buffalo, N.Y. "Now that they are young adults, it's just great to see the people they have turned into and how absolutely wonderful they are to be around."
Darian Rich credits the SquashWise staff for pushing him to improve his performance in the classroom, so he could travel and participate in tournaments across the country in cities like Boston, Denver and Philadelphia.
During his time with SquashWise, Darian Rich was the program's top-ranked player and held his own at college venues against private school opponents with more experience. He said there were moments off the court, however, when he contemplated giving up. But his newfound love for squash wouldn't let him quit.
"I liked the squash part, and I liked to travel everywhere and to show off," Darian Rich said with a laugh. "That was my spotlight."
The great thing about the program, Skarzynski said, is that students, like Darian and Eryn Rich, are rewarded based on work ethic, rather than pure skill set and talent.
"A student can come to us and be a C or D student, and then as long as they are working hard and pushing to improve their grades, they're going to have a lot of access to those opportunities," Skarzynski said. "It's really not about being a great athlete or a great student."