SquashBusters is a little bit about squash and a lot about changing the lives of urban teenagers

Greg Zaff left a professional squash career in search of a job in public service. But then he found a way to combine his two passions.

SquashBusters founder Greg Zaff and Yvonne Dunkley, a participant in the program. —Jean Nagy / Boston.com

After spending his childhood devoted to tennis, Greg Zaff found a love for another racquet sport. He played squash for Williams College and, after graduating, played another seven years professionally. While squash was his obsession, the Newton native knew his calling was public service.

Twenty years ago, Zaff came up with a way to have his cake and eat it, too, when he founded SquashBusters, the after-school program that’s centered around the sport he loves but is much more about giving opportunities to kids.

1. How did you go from being a professional squash player to founding SquashBusters?

Right after college, I took a trip around the world with my very closest college friend. [I realized] how lucky I had been and am to have been born to the parents I was and given all the opportunity. It just made me very aware of the world and unfairness. I got back from that trip and spent about seven years playing professional squash full time.

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This idea around squash and urban kids was kind of planted in my head when I was playing squash across North America.

In my late twenties, I was trying to think about my life and what I wanted to do. I was very clear I was not interested in being a college squash coach or working at a country club or a prep school. That was not for me. I had a very strong sense I wanted to go into public service. I ended up going to the Kennedy School.

When I graduated, I ended up going into state government. It was basically a big bureaucracy. I didn’t like it. I liked the mission — I didn’t like what I was doing.

I had written a paper at the Kennedy School for a class on social entrepreneurship on starting an urban squash program. That’s really where the idea came from.

2. And how did the idea turn into the actual organization?

I loved squash, but I was feeling really disappointed in how elitist the sport was and how unavailable and unknown. It’s in every city, but you’re sequestered off in these private clubs and everybody looks the same and comes from the same background — even more so than tennis. Tennis back in the 1940s was where squash was in the 1990s.

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When I was in my early thirties, I quit the state government job. I was still trying to find my passion and my place. I was really insistent that I had to do that, and I had the luxury of no family and no expenses — no nothing.

So I started to develop the idea more, and write about it, and meet with people, and try and convert an idea into an actual program.

And Harvard said, ‘We will officially lend you court space.’ Governor [William] Weld said, ‘I will join the board of directors.’ That was a big deal.

I met people at the Timilty School [in Boston] and the Harrington School in Cambridge and I explained what I was trying to do.

3. How did you explain it? What was your pitch?

I would explain it then to people the same way I describe it now. It’s about the things we all need: perseverance, hard work, getting along with others, and goal-setting. It’s going to change kids’ lives. It’s going to be the most intensive, demanding, unbelievably focused program in the city. It’s going to be about character. It’s going to be about values. It’s not going to be about who’s the best squash player or who’s the best student. It’s going to give every kid a fair chance. It’s going to be about hard work, being a good human being, showing up, and treating people well. And it’s going to transform kids’ attitudes about themselves, and take them to places they have never been, and make them believe they can do anything they want to do in the world if they’re willing to work for it.

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4. And then you were off and running?

We started in September of 1996. I leased a van. It was me, and I had a van, and I picked the Timilty kids up on Tuesday and Friday and took them to the YMCA, and we did an hour-and-a-half of squash and an hour-and-a-half of academics. It was 12 Timilty sixth graders the first year. And on Monday and Wednesday, it was the same thing, and I took the Harrington kids to The Harvard Club. And then on Saturday, the whole group of 24 students came together at Harvard. So for each kid it was three days a week, September through June.

Then during the summer, I brokered opportunities and got kids scholarships to squash camps and overnight camps and tennis camps. Whatever I could pull together.

Zaff (left) hits with Yvonne Dunkley (center) and Kimberlyn Jones (right). —Jean Nagy / Boston.com

5. How much has SquashBusters grown since it was founded, and why do you think the program has been so successful?

Right now in Boston, we have 135 to 140 middle- and high-school students in the program. And [we have another] 59 students who went through the program who are in college. We are closely involved with them. We have a whole college and alumni support program.

And then we expanded to Lawrence, where we have a sixth-to-tenth grade program now in its fourth year. And that’s 75 students who we pick up at our partner middle schools in Lawrence and at Lawrence High School, and they practice and study at The Brooks School and Phillips Andover.

What I discovered pretty early on was that kids liked [SquashBusters] because it was hard. And it did what it said it was going to do. I was there and I was pushing them and pushing myself. It became clear to the kids it was a serious operation and you were either in or out. And for the ones who stayed in, it started to mean a great deal to them.

6. SquashBusters operates out of its own facility on Northeastern’s campus — how did that come about?

In the early years it was just going to go through eighth grade. The realization that it did work meant it had to run through high school to have its intended impact, which was to get kids to go to college.

That’s what led to building this facility. We were not going to be able to borrow enough squash courts to run middle- and high-school programming and sustain that.

Richard Freeland, who was the president of Northeastern, had been a squash player in college. He had a confidence that we had something real and effective. The deal was that the university would give us the piece of land, and we had to raise all the money to build the facility.

It was financed all through donations – incredible generosity. We were tiny … and we had to raise $6 million. I didn’t know if it would work. But the moment we got the lead gift of $1.5 million, I knew it was going to happen. The facility opened in 2003.

7. Is the program centered around squash because there’s something specific about the sport that lends itself to the skills you think kids need to develop? Or because you love the sport?

A lot of squash players don’t like when I say this, but in a lot of ways I don’t believe there’s some unbelievably special thing about squash that [this type of program] couldn’t be done with other sports.

But, that said, I think there are some special things about squash. You’re in a court trying to beat someone’s brains in with a racquet. At the same time, you have to get along, and be a sportsman, and be honest. It’s cooperation and competition. It’s learning how to care about winning and persevering and also holding your emotions in check. It’s concentration. It’s strategy. It’s a lot of the different emotional challenges that you have to overcome and get good at to be successful in life.

In squash, you’re right next to the person who’s trying to beat you. There’s nowhere to go, there’s no one to blame, except you. And there’s a light shining on everything about you. You’re slow. You’re fast. You’re out of shape. You’re in shape. You’re a crappy sport. You lack concentration. You came through in the clutch. It’s like a test kitchen. That exists in all sports, but because of squash’s four walls and everyone is watching – it’s exacerbated.

8. What’s the average schedule for kids in the program?

Students spend three to four days a week with us. For middle-school kids, it’s 75 minutes of academics, so homework and making sure they’re staying on course in school, and then 75 minutes of fitness and squash.

The high-school program is three hours long. It has an academic enrichment hour, a homework hour, and a squash hour. Enrichment in high school we do because there are things we think high schoolers have to have. We do career exposure. We take them to businesses. We bring in speakers. We’re trying to move them beyond just schoolwork to prepare them for college and work.

And we do fun stuff, too. We go skiing on a weekend and we visit prep schools and we go to New York City to see a play.

Yvonne Dunkley (left) and Kimberlyn Jones (center) practicing with Zaff. —Jean Nagy / Boston.com

9. To what extent do the kids who start in the program stick with it? And for the kids who remain in the program, how does SquashBusters help with school and college placement?

We’re trying to match what we have to offer with students who want it. We don’t do everything under the sun to keep kids in the program, but we do a lot. You’ve got to be dedicated. You’ve got to show up. You’ve got to take responsibility for yourself. And parents have to be supportive of it. But people struggle, and they run into obstacles, and we work with them on those challenges. Whatever it might be, we don’t give up on kids. But I’ve learned that it’s not for everybody. And it’s a stronger program when you understand that.

But, for some students, this becomes the most incredible thing in their life, and they can’t get enough of it.

We know these kids very well by the time they hit tenth grade. Our goal is to find them the most suitable educational opportunity for them. Sometimes that’s a prep school, though not often. We have put about 35 to 40 students in prep school. I’m driving a boy to Taft next week. Our overall goal is to keep kids progressing educationally at a place where they belong. Sometimes the place is Bunker Hill Community College. Sometimes the place Harvard. We just had a kid graduate from Harvard.

Almost every student that finishes with us goes on to college. Like 99 percent.

We now have seven alumni on staff full-time. That’s seven of our 20 full-time staff members. The program is largely being run by alumni who I met when they were 11. That feels really good.

10. Have there been other programs centered around squash popping up around the country?

Yes. There are now 20 urban squash programs nationally that grew out of SquashBusters. It spawned them.

In 2005, there were four [urban squash] programs nationally. I got together with the guys running them and said we have to organize. We founded the National Urban Squash + Education Association.

I actually left SquashBusters in 2006 to run the association and define what urban squash is. And then I came back here in 2011 with a pretty clear idea I was going to stay for a long time. This program is my baby. This program is like home.

Know someone in Boston who you’d like to see featured in a future Q&A? Email me at sargent@boston.com .

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