LEWISTON — After his 2012 graduation from Bowdoin College, Barrett Takesian took a job as an insurance underwriter in Portland.

It did not last long.

“I knew very quickly I was not going to survive in my cubicle,” Takesian said Thursday.

Barrett Takesian, center, president and executive director of Portland Community Squash, is flanked at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum by intern Hamza Omar of Portland and Lewiston Public Library Director Marcela Peres.

Takesian told a Great Falls Forum audience at the Lewiston Public Library he realized what he really loved was working with children — and playing squash.

“Squash was the only thing I was good at in school,” he said.

During the past five years, he has managed to turn his love of the fairly obscure and often elitist sport into a nonprofit called Portland Community Squash, which brings together low-income students and adults to focus on squash, wellness and academics.

The Southwest Harbor native, who played squash at Bowdoin, has built the nonprofit into a center with four courts housed in a former synagogue that has 11 employees, 200 students and 300 adults regularly involved.

At first, he said, the focus was solely on youngsters, but Takesian came to realize that a broader notion of community existed.

A mix of users of different ages, incomes and ethnicities, he said, allowed greater financial viability while at the same time presenting “an opportunity to unite all of our population.”

Takesian said his organization has four vans that pick up students as young as third grade and bring them to the facility after school. The students, who are given scholarships, generally spend an hour on the court, an hour in fitness programs and an hour getting academic help.

The idea is to get third-, fourth- and fifth-graders to make a serious commitment to the program with the idea that they will belong to it through college, Takesian said.

“You’re signing up for a community that’s going to take you all the way,” he said.

The oldest students in the pipeline are high school juniors now, he said, but he anticipates approaching 100% of participants going on to colleges.

The program has gained notice nationally. Takesian is helping create similar centers from Vermont to Atlanta.

He said national proponents want him to take a job coordinating the effort in New York, but he’s not interested in leaving Portland, a city where he knew no one at 22 but has “said yes” to him at every turn as he’s helped to create something that meshes with his vision and his passions.

Squash is a surprising activity for low-income city youths. It uses a four-walled court with a small, hollow rubber ball that barely bounces that players smack with racquets against the playable parts on each wall in a high-speed game that demands skill and concentration.

Because courts are hard to come by, it has traditionally been an elite sport in the United States, though Takesian and others are endeavoring to change that.

Takesian said squash is popular around the world, particularly in places the English once colonized. Nine of the 10 best players are from Egypt, he said.

Each summer, Takesian said, the nonprofit brings half a dozen Egyptian players over to play in Portland. It’s not especially competitive, he admitted.

“They destroy us,” he said. “We go for quantity, not quality, right now.”

But the pipeline he’s creating has attracted the notice of college coaches, including the one at Bates College, who helps out the nonprofit. The Bates squash team has made appearances, too, Takesian said.

Playing squash in Lewiston isn’t easy for those who aren’t on the team.

Bates used to have a couple of courts on campus for students, faculty and community members to use, but the last of them is being turned into a physical training room, according to the college’s student newspaper.

The school has six squash courts in a leased warehouse 4 miles away that are only open to the varsity team, one of the nation’s best.

Takesian said he hopes colleges like Bates and Bowdoin will find a way to keep their facilities available to community members. With “a little bit of creative thinking,” he said, there’s no good reason to have them going unused when there is so much potential for people to play.

Takesian said he studied economics and environmental studies at Bowdoin, convinced they would be helpful to his career.

What turned out to matter most, though, is “the only thing Bowdoin teaches,” which he summed up as “how to write and talk.”

The Great Falls Forum is a free, monthly, brown bag speaker series featuring statewide and regional leaders in public policy, business, academia and the arts. Its speakers are sponsored by the Sun Journal, Bates College and the library.

Takesian’s appearance was the last forum until the series resumes in the fall.

Barrett Takesian, executive director of Portland Community Squash, assesses the swing of Joshua Willey, 14, during an after-school program at Portland Community Squash.

 


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