More than a game

By Andrea E. McHugh

From the courts to the course, local youths are serving up fresh talent — and a trio of organizations are there to cheer them on

The FabGolf crew, led by Orlando Peace, at Green Valley Country Club in Portsmouth. | Dave Hansen photo

When it comes to sports, Newport has long been a city of firsts. Home of the first U.S. Open tournaments in both tennis and golf in 1881 and 1895 respectively, the first International Polo Match in 1886 — and even the first ESPN X-Games in 1995, Newport’s sporting past is only rivaled by its present, as evidenced by The Ocean Race’s recent stopover alongside other prestigious regattas, the Hall of Fame Open hosted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Newport International Polo Series, and the upcoming 2024 U.S. Senior Open.

For more than a century, top athletes from far and wide have descended on the City-by-the-Sea to compete for shiny cups and towering trophies, but what about developing talent in our own backyard— and making these sports accessible, affordable and equitable?

Three programs are working in our community to open doors, bridge gaps, and introduce a world of possibilities — on and off the court and course.

Golf guru

Growing up on a farm in southeastern Virginia, Orlando Peace was just about the least likely person to fall in love with the game of golf, but he did. Peace became so passionate about the sport that he put everything on the line to give kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunity to share that same passion.

The thing is, he had to create that opportunity from scratch.

Orlando Peace | Dave Hansen

“Every time I went to a golf course in this area, I was like, ‘Man, you know what? I don’t see any kids that look like me. I don’t see too many guys out here that look like me.’ … So I said ‘Okay, let’s change it.’,” recalls Peace.

At the time, he was working at a local youth organization and had pitched the idea of a golf program without success. Unwilling to give up, he tried once more — this time ready to sacrifice his salaried job with benefits — with a prepared resignation letter in his pocket to demonstrate his seriousness.

Again, the idea was rejected, and that’s when Steve Heath, executive director of FabNewport, hired Peace and gave him the greenlight to build a youth golf program from the ground up.

FabNewport is a nonprofit makerspace and STEAM learning studio that offers a range of year-round programs in school, after school and during the summer to middle and high school students. The organization’s location at the Florence Gray Center in the Newport Heights neighborhood was exactly where Peace wanted to begin his outreach.

“Because here in this side of town, you know, a lot of kids don’t go to college. A lot of kids struggle in high school. A lot of absenteeism in the school,” says Peace, adding he lives just three minutes from the center.

FabGolf launched in 2021 and at first, it was a hard sell. “Kids would say, ‘Oh come on, man. Don’t nobody play this but old white guys,’” Peace recalls. “And I was like, ‘how do you know you’re not going to be good at it?’”

Members of the FabGolf program, pictured above and below. | Dave Hansen photo

Peace was determined to show students that the game is just one small part of the golf experience. “I didn’t want to start this program to find the next Tiger Woods,” he says. “I wanted to start this program to be able to get kids to look at golf as an $84 billion-a-year industry. ‘What part of that $84 billion do you want?’”

Marketing, media, operations, course groundskeeping, hospitality, sponsorship relations, event management, accounting, membership operations, caddying, golf club fitting and design — Peace shows his players that golf provides opportunities far beyond competition. “You get to meet different people; people where they could open your eyes up to different opportunities,” he says.

He also wanted the students to bridge the academic piece of the game, connecting what they learn in school to what they experience on the fairway. “It’s a big classroom. That’s what the golf course is… where you learn about yourself, you learn about life, math, science, English, the weather — you name it.”

FabGolf’s boys and girls mostly play at Green Valley Country Club in Portsmouth, but have played, attended clinics and competed against golf teams on courses throughout the area including Wanumetonomy Country Club, also in Portsmouth, and Button Hole in Providence.

More often than not, their competition has far greater experience on the greens, but Peace sees that as a life lesson.

“We compete against kids that grew up in the sport because grandfather is a member at this or that country club,” he says. “…[but] I give them the expectation right away. This is how life works. People will put their expectations on you because of your address. Because of your zip code. And you know how to stop the chatter? I say, ‘You keep showing up. You keep raising your hand at school. You sit in the front — you don’t sit in the back.’”

And the team, composed of students of all backgrounds and ethnicities, including Hispanic, Asian, African, Portuguese and Brazilian, are like family, he says. Recently, a 12-year-old girl hit a putt on the 17th hole of Green Valley.

“Downhill, playing against boys, going downhill and the next thing you know, she nailed it. Every kid who was out there went bananas. The whole place erupted like she won the Masters!,” Peace says.

Two years after its inception, FabGolf no longer has a recruitment problem. Nearly 70 students have participated in the program and Peace’s enthusiasm is equally palpable and infectious.

“It took me a lot to get to this spot. I had different jobs in life, and it’s work, but this is not work to me, Peace says. “Yes, it is my job; it is my profession, and I have to come to work, but this is the best job you could ever have,” he says. “This is it for me, because of moments like that.”

Squash at the Y

Omar El-Kashef knows a thing or two about being a champion — and making a champion. Born and raised in Cairo, he took to squash naturally as a youth, becoming a top Egyptian player who would go on to play on the Professional Squash Association tour and the Squash Doubles Association tour, eventually ranking #19 in the world.

And he looks right at home on the new multi-million-dollar courts at the de Ramel Family Squash Center, which, if taken at face value with its six world-class international singles courts and a doubles court, look as though they could be a part of any country club’s resplendent athletic facilities.

But they’re at the Newport County YMCA in Middletown. The center is part of the organization’s recently completed $15 million renovation project.

Youths learning to play squash at the YMCA with instructor Omar El Kashef. | Dave Hansen photo

The YMCA’s CEO, Mike Miller, says the organization conducted a nationwide search to find a squash director who would “create a community we could all be proud of. We found that person when we met Omar El Kashef.” Today, El-Kashef oversees all structured squash programs, including lessons and clinics for all ages and abilities, league play, and personal coaching.

“Our vision to start was to see a future where racquet sports are enjoyed and played by individuals from all backgrounds,” says El-Kashef, who concedes the sport has long been considered elitist due to its proliferation amongst exclusive membership clubs, private schools, including St. George’s School in Middletown and Portsmouth Abbey, and Ivy League colleges and universities.

With the goal of broadening that pipeline, El-Kashef works with the YMCA staff here in his newly adopted island home to make squash interesting and accessible to the entire community, including the underserved.

“A lot of people still think… ’Oh squash, that’s just not an affordable sport,’ but we’re trying to offer affordable and engaging coaching sessions and to make sure that the barriers are very minimized, and so we have more people participate,” he says. “Being in the squash world for 35years, I can tell you we are beating the prices of every single squash [club] in the country.”

This summer, El-Kashef expanded the YMCA squash program by launching Rackets Camp — weekly camps for children aged 4 to 14 who learn to play squash, tennis and pickleball. The program focuses on fun and inclusivity, and the camps welcome both first-timers and children with some experience who can improve their skills and technique.

“This camp is for everyone,” he says. Perhaps most importantly, scholarships are readily available. “The YMCA provides over $250,000 in scholarships each year to families, youth and adults across Newport County,” says Miller. “The YMCA now has the sport of squash to add to its list of life-changing programs that have an impact in our community.”

Youths learning to play squash at the YMCA with instructor Omar El Kashef. | Dave Hansen photo

The center is also home to RhodySquash, an after-school enrichment program launched in 2011 that combines academic tutoring, squash instruction, community service and mentoring at no cost to accepted students. RhodySquash has served youths in Newport and will expand to Middletown this September.

El-Kashef has previously coached numerous world-class players in his native country, and stateside in Boston, New York and Pittsburgh, but the adrenaline rush is just as palpable for him when he’s welcoming the new and curious to the sport.

“You feel [just] as accomplished when you get a kid off the couch and stop playing video games, get on the court, and play this sport for life,” he says.

El-Kashef tells kids it’s easy to see the “Instagram moments” — the highlight reels of victories and championships — but that the sport is so much more than those fleeting moments. It’s about fitness and athleticism, hard work and strategy; being one step ahead of your opponent.

“Some people call [squash] ‘physical chess,’” he says. “So, you really have to figure out a way to use your brain and execute the correct way.”

Tennis dreams

“The very first day of TeamFAME, a kid walked up to me and said, ‘I used to walk by this place every single day, and I wondered if it was for me. Now I know that it is,’” says Marguerite Marano. “It was a dream of mine to see the kids across the street walking here.”

Marano’s dream has been years in the making.

When Todd Martin, the former CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, tasked her to leading the charge on the development and implementation of a local after-school tennis program like the one in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan, Marano rose to the occasion.

She thought the program would fall under the umbrella of a USTA Foundation’s National Junior Tennis and Learning chapter, so there would be an existing framework to work from.

Youth members of the TeamFAME program. | Jen Carter photo

“I quickly learned there wasn’t a blueprint,” Marano, who is vice president of advancement at TeamFAME. “I talked to a lot of executive directors and a lot of chapters, and the thing is, this chapter had to be created to meet the needs of our specific community.”

After assessing existing local after-school programs to identify where there was the greatest need, it became clear to Marano that there was a gap reaching middle school students.

Using a youth development model for students in fifth through eighth grade, TeamFAME (Future Aces Modeling Excellence) was created to serve “under-resourced kids who need academic support, who need structured time afterschool, [and] who need these resources in order to see greater success in life, both on and off the court,” says Marano.

In 2018, the ITHF officially welcomed the first Team FAME class, providing tennis instruction and homework assistance and tutoring. Additional personal enrichment programs ranging from nutrition education to STEM activities.

Youth members of the TeamFAME program. | Jen Carter photo

Marano became the program’s executive director as well.

Last year, the first TeamFAME class graduated and advanced to high school programs where they continue to receive mentoring and college and career readiness. This past fall, all of the girls in the program made the Rogers High School tennis team, and Marano is determined to see a men’s tennis team come to fruition there.

But the impact goes far beyond the court.

TeamFAME participants have shown an increase in attendance and homework completion rates, and work with mentors from Salve Regina University and St. George’s School to achieve their academic goals. They also give back, volunteering in myriad community service projects.

Many of those inaugural class students have returned to the program as junior coaches-in-training, mentors to younger participants, interns — and they will serve as ball kids in July at the Infosys Hall of Fame Open (a men’s ATP 250 grass court tennis tournament). A handful of kids have also secured paid summer jobs with the ITHF.

The scope of TeamFAME has grown as well. The program’s outreach initiatives include working with other youth organizations, including FabNewport, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, Bike Newport, Newport Parks & Recreation and, during the academic year, with students at Pell Elementary.

Youth members of the TeamFAME program, pictured above and at bottom. | Jen Carter photo

The summer program, which encompasses seven-week sessions, ensures campers are provided transportation, meals, tennis instruction, enrichment activities and field trips to various locations throughout Rhode Island.

While partial scholarships are available, nearly all students receive a full scholarship. There’s an equal rate of male to female participants, and 76% are students of color, 28% are multilingual learners and 80% qualify for free or reduced lunch at school.

“In our first four years, we have raised over $1.3 million for TeamFAME. Our operating budget is about $460,000annually,” says Marano, who seems to be growing the program at every opportunity.

“Every day they come here, I say, ‘You have to just try to be just one-percent better, just try to be a little bit better every single day,” Marano says. “And whether it’s on a tennis court, in the classroom, in life — just get a little bit better.”

“Showing them, ‘You worked so hard, and what happened? It’s paid off.’ Showing them that hard work does actually pay off is a huge win in my mind.”