Two years ago, Kamarra Richberg had never heard of squash — the sport, at least. She never imagined she would ever pick up a racket, let alone that the game would take her up and down the East Coast.
"The first time someone hears squash, they think of the food," she recalled. "I didn't know anything about it."
The 17-year-old Baltimore native left Tuesday to begin the third annual Urban Squash Citizenship Tour, which starts Wednesday in New York and ends July 13 in Washington. Richberg, a rising junior at Western, is a student at SquashWise, a local program that offers academic and athletic opportunities to high schoolers. The facility, located north of Druid Hill Park, is a branch of the National Urban Squash and Education Association, which offer similar programs in cities across the country.
In squash, similar to racquetball, players alternate hitting a rubber ball – roughly the size of a golf ball – against the wall in an enclosed court. Since it was invented in the 1860s, it has traditionally been played at private clubs and elite universities, primarily among the upper class. The NUSEA seeks to extend those opportunities to urban youth.
Richberg learned about the sport after SquashWise came to her middle school to recruit new members. She first tried it before her freshman year of high school and has played ever since.
"She shows up the last week of the summer session that we're having, and just comes in with all smiles and energy, ready to go," said Matt Skarzynski, the assistant director of the citizenship tour and program director at SquashWise. Skarzynski is also a tour chaperone and drove Richberg from Baltimore to New York on Tuesday.
Richberg became involved in SquashWise for the sport of it, but she stayed with it in large part for the academic program. SquashWise offers tutoring services with the aim of sending all of its students to college.
"It's like a second family to me," Richberg said. "Other than squash and academics, we bond like brothers and sisters."
Last year, Richberg heard about the citizenship tour from Poly alumni Tayler St. Clair and Nytiece Powell, two SquashWise graduates who participated in 2015. This year, she wanted her own chance.
The application required her to film a video essay giving her opinion on which issues she would like to see the next U.S. president address. The 2016 election cycle has provided central talking points for this summer's trip, and again, the tour has a high-profile schedule.
The week starts Wednesday with a squash training session, but the sport is only a small part of the schedule. The students will be in New York through Friday, then in Philadelphia until Sunday and Washington the rest of the time.
Thursday in New York begins with a visit to the mayor's office. Students will also tour NBC studios that day and The New York Times' office Friday.
Richberg is most excited for a meeting with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on Monday. The students will also see the White House, the U.S. Capitol Building and the National Mall in Washington, as well as Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Alana Lerner, the tour director, sets up the schedule each year. She and the NUSEA rely on word of mouth to reach out to various high-profile leaders to schedule meetings.
"From past experience, it's really eye-opening for these students who may not get outside of their city or community much at all," Lerner said. "When they come back from the tour, they're still talking about it. They're still taking pieces of advice that these individuals have spoken to them about leading in the community."
Skarzynski said the goal of the tour is to find something that sparks the students' interest, whether in politics, in journalism or elsewhere, as they prepare for their professional lives.
Richberg's current career goal is to become a homicide detective, inspired by mystery books and television shows such as "CSI" and "Criminal Minds." She doesn't know where she wants to attend college, but she hopes to continue competing in squash.
In the car Tuesday on the way to New York for the tour, Richberg reflected on how integral squash has become for her. Merely picking up a racket as a 15-year-old set her on a course that eventually led to this week-long trip, which could lead her to places she has never discovered.
"As a high schooler, you're still very much in the discovery phase in figuring out what excites you," Skarzynski said. "There are going to be a lot of people we're meeting who do very exciting things."
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