By Barrett Neale
Co-founded in 2007 by current executive director Abby Markoe, SquashWise is "providing long-term academic and social support to underserved students in Baltimore City, using the sport of squash as the incentive for academic success," according to its Web site, baltimoresquashwise.org.
This summer, some of the SquashWise students will take their squash skills outside the city, thanks in part to the recent fundraising efforts of Matt Skarzynski, the program's academic director, who ran the Boston Marathon April 18 and raised more than $10,000.
Skarzynski began working for SquashWise in August 2009. He was not a squash player when he began the job, but he has obtained a membership at Meadow Mill and now competes against his students.
The first school to partner with SquashWise was Booker T. Washington Middle School, but the current SquashWise students come from the Baltimore Civitas School, which enrolls sixth- to 12th-grade students.
"We don't necessarily want to work with the best city school or a charter school," Skarzynski said. "We want to work where we're definitely serving students who are in need of the academic assistance that we provide and the interventions that we provide."
Each student spends at least three days per week at SquashWise, two weekdays and Saturday. The SquashWise staff picks about 14 sixth-graders each year and works with them year-round until they are in 12th grade to ensure they graduate from high school and college.
"We hold a tryout in the beginning of the year," Skarzynski said, "and the tryout is to see who's going to be excited about the program, interested in both the academic and the squash portions. We don't have any academic requirements or squash or athletic abilities. It's really just who's going to be excited, who's going to commit to working with us."
Skarzynski provided an example of what dedication and hard work can accomplish when he decided to use his background as a runner to raise money for SquashWise. He qualified for the Boston Marathon last July, and began his 20-week training program Dec. 1.
On weekdays, he ran 1.5 hours before going to work at 10 a.m. On Sundays, he ran between two and three hours. In addition to running, Skarzynski was restricting his diet, but he stuck to his regimen and met his two goals for the race: finishing in the top 500 and raising $5,000 for SquashWise.
Going into the race day, Skarzynski had raised about $2,500, and had a number of incentive-based pledges that could help him get to $5,000. Many of his supporters agreed to donate more if he finished in the top 100 or ran the 26.2 miles in less than three hours.
"Going into race day, I had done a lot of work for this fundraising," Skarzynski said, "but it wasn't going to matter unless I had a really great day. … The board of directors at SquashWise said, 'If and only if you raise your $5,000, we'll match 50 cents for every dollar you raise.'
"I got really lucky and my training paid off and I had a great race and met up to $5,000. I think on my own, I raised close to $7,000, and then the SquashWise board of directors kicked in with their matching donation that took it to more than $10,000."
Skarzynski finished 477th, with a time of 2:48.18.
When Skarzynski returned home, he talked to his students about following through on the goals he set and using running to achieve a healthy lifestyle. Although the money he raised goes into a general fund, he said adding to the organization's operating costs allowed SquashWise to send students to summer camps.
This summer, students will travel to camps at Princeton, the Naval Academy and Vassar, as well as programs like SquashWise in Philadelphia and New York. Those opportunities are what Skarzynski highlighted when he solicited donations.
"If our students look around them in their classroom at school, the kids around them don't get to have these opportunities," Skarzynski said, "whereas I was fortunate enough to grow up with lots of these opportunities for going away to sleep-away camps and things that I took for granted. When our students get to participate in these things, it's just sort of life-changing to them."
More Front Row:
• Triangle In Sports Really Means Coming Full Circle
• Orioles Scout Howard Enters Hall Of Fame
• Cheerleaders Fill In At Roosts’ OC Event
• Mumma To Follow Legend At UMBC
• Skarzynski Squashes His Marathon Goals
• From The Cheap Seats
Issue 162: June 2011