Serena Carbonell, executive director of First State Squash, has dedicated her career to providing urban youth with opportunities they never thought they’d have. The All-American squash player beams when speaking of Cassidy Simmons, a Wilmington native, who has been involved since 2016.
“Cassidy came in not really psyched about squash, but her mom encouraged her to stick with it,” Carbonell says. “To see her now go out and win her first match is extraordinary.”
Cassidy, an 11-year-old from Thomas Edison Charter School, is one of the 12 students Carbonell mentors at First State Squash, a year-round youth program that provides squash instruction and intensive educational support. The nonprofit partners with Thomas Edison and A.I. duPont Middle School because Carbonell feels students at these schools will benefit most.
“The value in partnering with a public and charter school seemed wise, especially knowing how much the Wilmington education system is struggling,” she says.
Outside of squash and academic education, students work through external issues such as anger management. The students also gain confidence and learn the value of respect and sportsmanship through the program.
“We want our students to treat one another with fairness, admiration and dignity,” Carbonell says. “This is not an easy task—they’re all learning at their own pace.”
First State Squash, which launched in 2016, is the 20th installation to the National Urban Squash + Educational Association. The first team started in Boston in 1996. The urban squash movement has enrolled more than 1,850 elementary, middle, high school and college students.
Carbonell attributes the students’ growth—physically and personally—to the uniqueness of the sport. Learning something new takes dedication and focus.
Since joining First State Squash, Cassidy and her twin brother, Cameron, have become healthier and more confident. “They’re learning a sport that isn’t familiar or popular in urban areas,” says their mother, Susie. “I didn’t even know what squash was. I had to look it up.”
After one year in the program, Cassidy—who initially thought the sport was boring—has become determined to grow as a player.
“I love being on the court,” Cassidy says. “I hope to go very far with squash.”