University alum Derek Aguirre’s interest in Detroit began when he attended Detroit Project Day — now known as Detroit Partnership Day— as a sophomore in the spring of 2000.
After he volunteered with nonprofits in the city’s Brightmoor neighborhood, Aguirre was hooked, continuing his involvement with the Detroit Project throughout college.
“It was my first exposure into some nonprofits on the west side of the city that were doing really inspiring work,” Aguirre said. “Along the way, I developed an idea that having a career in a nonprofit field might be exciting and a good use of my abilities and skills. A lot of that was because of the exposure I had to the executive directors of the nonprofits I was working with. I liked the creativity of their work and their mission and the direct impact they could see and feel with their work.”
Now Aguirre lives and works in Detroit, where he runs a nonprofit organization, Racquet Up Detroit, that he started in 2010.
Racquet Up Detroit combines the sport of squash with academics, community service, summer programs and more to positively impact Detroit youth.
Located in northwest Detroit, the organization serves 85 students in fifth through ninth grades, although students are expected to stay in the program until they graduate from high school. Students are selected based on attitude, effort and desire to participate in the program. Racquet Up Detroit also runs summer camps for local students.
During the school year, students spend three days a week after school at Racquet Up Detroit, where they play squash and focus on academics.
Historically popular on the East Coast, squash is a racquet sport played with two people on an enclosed court. Aguirre’s involvement in the sport began after he graduated from the University in 2002 and moved to Boston, where he directed the academic program at a similar nonprofit, SquashBusters, for six years.
“The sport itself is a great venue for character development,” Aguirre said. “Squash … is a very tight knit community that exposes you to people and places and ideas that you might not have been exposed to otherwise. I’m completely passionate about it. It’s opened my life up in a big way.”
After working with SquashBusters, Aguirre received his master’s degree in business in 2010, focusing on nonprofit management. He started Racquet Up Detroit immediately thereafter.
“Everything came together all at once,” he said. “It was the fulfillment of many years of talking about and thinking about leading a nonprofit in Detroit.”
A goal of the program is to engage students at a young age and support them throughout their “transformative years” in middle and high school and as they apply to college. Racquet Up Detroit focuses on literacy skills, strength of character, self-esteem, physical fitness and education.
Racquet Up Detroit is a member of the National Urban Squash + Education Association, an umbrella organization for 20 squash and education programs that reach more than 1,000 students across the country. The NUSEA model has seen high success: more than 90 percent of students attend college, around 100 students have received scholarships to private high schools and students have earned $20 million in college and high school scholarships.
College exposure is a big part of Racquet Up Detroit’s program, which includes excursions to area universities. The program also travels to squash tournaments: Aguirre has accompanied youth to Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, among other places, where students have also gotten the chance to see schools like the University of Chicago and Harvard University.
Students also go on regular field trips to cultural attractions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Opera House. In addition, students participate in volunteer work throughout the city.
“We do anything we can think of to round out their perspectives on themselves and the world and the future,” Aguirre said. “We want the kids understand their own potential to give back to the community.”
Students come from nearby schools and participate in the program at a low cost. Because the organization is only five years old, students in the program have not yet graduated or applied to college. The first students will graduate in 2018.
Aguirre has high hopes for participants’ futures — a participant recently got a scholarship to attend summer camp at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, the third participant from Racquet Up Detroit to study at the prestigious school. Last summer, a student won the Midwest Urban Squash Championships, and students have gone to squash camps all over the country.
“We’ve built something that has some staying power,” Aguirre said, “that will serve the community and be a resource for kids and their families for many, many years.”