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Building relationships and community -- all around some squash courts

Portland Community Squash serves as a community center in the heart of the city.

PORTLAND, Maine — If you've never been to Portland Community Squash…what you'll find here might come as a bit of a surprise.

"It's been organic growth – it started with ten people at a coffee shop dreaming about what we could do with the sport in Portland, back in 2012," says founder Barrett Takesian. 

Following that dream, they raised money, bought what had been a temple, and began tearing down walls to build squash courts.  Barrett looks at a sport like squash, and sees so much more.  "We were really focused on youth, and closing the opportunity gaps in the schools and when Covid happened and we started developing the family relationships …We decided to grow in to a community development organization – more than just youth development."

Sarah Stickney is the Director of Operations. "Squash is the hook to get the kids in the building and its a fairly accessible sport - all you need is a racquet, eye protection and the right sneakers. It's a way to use sport, generally speaking to provide structure to the rest of the program."

The 'rest of the program' at PCS used to mean seeing anywhere from 100 to 200 kids after school – for squash instruction, wellness, academic and emotional support. All of that is ongoing but the offerings have been beefed up and expanded from just afternoons to all day.

"During Covid, we pivoted to basically serve 36 students here every week – we see 12 students on Tuesdays Wednesday and Thursdays, during one of their remote days and they travel around the building in pods of four through the three parts of our curriculum – which are squash academics and wellness. Of course we prioritize their academic class needs when they are here," says Sarah. 

On any given day, you might find kids in one of the classrooms, or in the kitchen making applesauce, or taking a break to engage in conversation. And always, the sound of the squash ball, slamming off the wall.  

Paul French started off as a volunteer; now's he the Senior Squash Director. "The things that we talk about all the time are respect, effort,  and positivity …I feel like we teach them those things, but also we teach 'em squash. We think we're helping the kids but really the kids are helping us …I found that to be so true, for myself, I get to know these kids and their families, these people I would never meet before, getting to know, you know, we're sharing each other's cultures."

Inas Alaari is a freshman as Casco Bay High who has been coming to PCS for three years. She had never heard of squash before coming to PCS. Now, she spends one of her remote learning days here.  "They do academics and wellness and you get to know people who don't go to your school or even near you, so it's like a way for you guys to get along, get to know each other. It's like a combination of both being home and school because this is my second home. This is my family. I feel more open to them because I've learned so much about them, they've learned so much about me we've been around each other for a long time."

For Barrett, it is about building relationships - not just with these students - but with their entire family. "If you look at social clubs, not many of them are intentionally diverse in the way we are. But they all have great social components. So one of our dreams is to build a café and community space where we'll be having pot lucks, music, lectures, gatherings that bring the city together in a social context that you will not find in many other spaces. One thing we say here as well is, people want to help each other but they need to know each other. So, just bringing people together for brave conversations is an essential first step to creating unity here in Portland and to understanding the different needs of our different neighbors."

Relationships take a long time to build – the staff at PCS is mindful of that. For this community tucked in the heart of the city, it is time well spent. 

"It fills me up, this is what illuminates me and my dream is just to see other kids and their families illuminated and coming to life too."

If you would like to learn more about Portland Community Squash, click here

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