This year, youth mentor Renato Paiva and his team at San Diego-based Access Youth Academy is expanding their 90-student after-school enrichment program for at-risk youth. After honing its curriculum for the past 10 years, it’s set to open a second facility in southeast San Diego, where there are vast opportunities to help an additional group of students excel academically, athletically and as adults within their local community.
We sat down with Renato recently to find out more about his award-winning program, how its mentorship program helped shape a generation of young children into San Diego’s community leaders, and how he uses squash to help teach his students life and leadership skills.
"From the perspective of social responsibility, we teach our students that life is one big cycle."
How does Access Youth Academy serve the San Diego community?
For the past 10 years, we’ve partnered with The Preuss School UCSD to serve kids from all over the city. Our after-school program supports 90 students with a three-phase, 12-year promise. We use the sport of squash as a catalyst to transform young lives, but the program is based on academic support.
During phase one of the program, we work with the kids from seventh through twelfth grades; phase two is their four years in college; and phase three is the two years post-college. Our primary goals are to get youths through high school and college while building life skills that translate into becoming responsible, honorable adults.
How does the presence of an additional adult role model influence the lives of the program’s participants?
Many of our students come to us from homes where they have very little support. Many of these young people come from broken homes, and many don’t have a father figure. To foster a support network, we match each child with a same-gender mentor who also has shared interests. Mentors agree to see their mentee at least two times per month, but they often choose to see them more often.
Our goal is to give each child a role model that they can look up to. We want them to have someone they can go to when they’re having issues and need someone to talk to, or help them work through stress. Our mentors are very present in the students’ lives.
The Access Youth Academy program is unique in that it nurtures sports ability, teaches social responsibility and fosters leadership skills. How does this model serve to shape young lives during their school years, and then in the years beyond?
Our program consists of four pillars: academic achievement, health and wellness, leadership, and social responsibility. We work hard to make sure our students graduate from high school, go to the right colleges and benefit from tuition assistance programs. Access Youth Academy has a 100 percent college acceptance rate, and our students have gone to some of the best schools in the nation, including Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn and University of California, Berkeley. They’ve earned over $4.6 million dollars in scholarships, some academic, some athletic. We work with students every day, 46 weeks of the year, for the six years they’re in primary school. We not only want them to go to college, but we also want them to become role models and leaders within the community. We focus on many skills, including public speaking, financial education and leadership.
We also have a full-time staff dedicated to our health and wellness programs, which includes service in nutrition, sex education and mental health. We’ve had children go through rough patches, pregnancy, suicide and other social problems. We’re there for them, no matter what they’re struggling with.
From the perspective of social responsibility, we teach our students that life is one big cycle. Today we’re on the bottom, but tomorrow we might be on top. It’s our job to help serve other folks within our community, and to help raise them up.
How is the sport squash used as a conduit to teach your students integral life and leadership skills?
We’re very proud of our squash record. In the 10 years we’ve run the program, we’ve won 13 national titles. Still, the students for our program aren’t selected based on their athletic ability. We don’t care if they can hit the ball. We don’t even see their grades. We want to see if they have grit and if they’re respectful. We search for kids who are hungry for life and who are willing to make the 12-year commitment necessary for the program. Those are the things that are important to us.
The students who are accepted into Access Youth Academy come to our facility every day after school and spend at least an hour studying and an hour playing squash. Some choose to stay longer to train or to study. Our volunteers create customized tutoring and athletic programs for each student. We work to strengthen weaknesses, but we also push the teens who already get straight As in school. It’s very common to see youth at the center as late as 7 p.m.
There’s no secret sauce to the success achieved by our students. It’s the result of everyday work. The road to graduation is not easy for many of them. It’s a long marathon, and many want to quit the program at some point. But we don’t quit on them, and they ultimately don’t quit on us.
What do you think are the biggest factors in the success of your program?
Ultimately, it’s all about the depth of the relationships between the students and us. You have to really get to know them, listen to them and get involved in their lives. You have to commit for a long period of time. I’ve had my students call me up to help them through some of the worst times of their lives. I’ve had them call me to share their greatest accomplishments. They’re all like my own children. They are my family.