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Serving up a path to college

Access Youth Academy Graduates
18 Djulia welcome to berkeley sign.jpg
Posted at 9:16 PM, Jul 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-22 09:39:02-04

JULY 21, 2021 — SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Parents are constantly looking for an edge to get their kids into college. But for the last 25 years, a growing movement using the sport of squash has been one of the most successful programs. Here in San Diego, it’s called Access Youth Academy and it has a 100% graduation rate, even helping some students get scholarships to Ivy League schools.

Just a few years ago Djulia Sekariyongo Koita knew nothing about the program, not to mention the sport of squash.

“I never heard of it,” says Djulia. “To be honest, I didn’t even know what squash was in the first place. Even like the fruit itself, I didn’t know what it was.”

Now Djulia, or D.J. as she’s known here at Access Youth Academy, helps coach young student-athletes in a program that could one day lead them to college, just like she did.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re tall or short, big or small, it’s all about here. All in the mind,” says Renato Paiva.

Paiva is the Executive Director of Access Youth Academy. He brought the urban squash movement here to San Diego 15 years ago. The idea is to help under-served students in low-income communities create a path to college through the sport of squash. It begins with an after-school program of academics and squash from 7th through the 12th grade. Students visit colleges, prep for the SAT and ACT, get help with college applications, and of course play in squash tournaments. This team has won 13 national titles.

“We love to go to college, but we love to win squash as well,” says Paiva beaming with pride.

Does it work? You bet it does. Access Youth Academy has a 100% graduation rate with an average GPA of 3.9 percent. And their student-athletes have received $8.6 million dollars in scholarships to college.

“This year one of our kids is going to Princeton,” adds Paiva. “We’ve had kids going to Columbia, Penn, Cornell, and many others. We’re very proud.”

But it doesn’t end there. In all, it’s a 12-year program. Access Youth provides support for their student-athletes through all four years of college, and then two years after graduation to help them find jobs or get into graduate school. You might say it’s the “Golden Ticket” for a trip to college.

“I agree,” says Paiva. “It’s going to become more popular as we get bigger.”

And getting bigger is exactly what Access Youth Academy is doing. The program just moved into a $12 million dollar facility in the heart of southeast San Diego to serve even more student-athletes and the entire community. The result of 15 years of hard work by Renato and his team.

“I’m very proud of it,” says Paiva fighting back tears.

D.J. is a shining example of the life-changing power of Access Youth Academy. She's now a Junior at Cal Berkeley and captain of the college squash team. She came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo at the age of six but by the age of nine, she was in the foster care system. At her graduation, she said Access Youth Academy gave her a home and a voice.

“I’ll carry Access with me everywhere,” says Djulia with a big smile. “And that voice, a lot of it comes from the confidence I’ve gained through these walls.”

“We’re here to serve. And we’re going to find new ways to serve,” adds Paiva.