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People in Your Neighborhood: Blair Sadler is ‘flunking’ retirement as he helps students through squash

La Jollan Blair Sadler co-founded the nonprofit Access Youth Academy after retiring as president of Rady Children's Hospital.
(Courtesy of Blair Sadler)

La Jollan Blair Sadler, a former president of Rady Children’s Hospital, is using retirement to continue his crusade to squash social inequities via Access Youth Academy, a nonprofit he co-founded 15 years ago to help children from underserved communities find success in college.

Access Youth Academy works to achieve its goals through coaching services provided while its participants learn to play the game of squash. This month it has begun doing so in a new academic and athletic training center in southeast San Diego.

The new 21,000-square-foot facility at 704 Euclid Ave. houses four classrooms, community meeting rooms, indoor and outdoor common areas and an eight-court, membership-driven squash club, including the only doubles court in San Diego.

The center is available to anyone countywide interested in squash.

Via Access Youth Academy, 120 students in grades seven through 12 meet with academic tutors and leadership mentors, learn squash and participate in community service projects. They receive support and coaching through college and into their first jobs as part of the organization’s “12-year promise.”

The academy, which is free to its low-income participants, has until now implemented its program using rented squash courts around San Diego County. “Our dream has always been [that] someday we will build our own facility,” said Sadler, who is board chairman for Access.

Why squash? “I love the game,” said Sadler, who learned squash at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where his team was rated fourth in the country.

Squash, which is similar to racquetball but played on a smaller court, is about learning, Sadler said. “You get in that little box and it’s just you and one other person. It’s your control of nerves and strategy and learning, and confidence. There’s no shortcut. ... I just spent hours learning the strokes.”

“That experience about how that game can change your life stayed with me,” he said.

Access Youth Academy provides students from underserved communities with mentoring and tutoring through the game of squash.
(Courtesy of Access Youth Academy)

Squash has other advantages, Sadler said: It’s played in 130 countries, can be played year-round, is equally accessible to men and women and is “very much an in-demand sport,” especially with East Coast colleges, which he said can give students who play an advantage in their applications.

Sadler started Access with co-founder Greg Scherman after Sadler retired from his 26-year position as president of San Diego’s Rady Children’s Hospital. They partnered the youth program with The Preuss School, a charter middle and high school on the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla that grants admission to low-income students who strive to be the first in their families to graduate from college.

Since then, Access has added three more schools and will take on sixth-graders in the fall, expanding the number of students it serves.

Though Sadler has chaired the Access board the past 10 years, “it’s a team effort,” he said, noting that Access’ achievements would not have been possible without the efforts of Scherman, Executive Director Renato Paiva and the other board members, including La Jollans Jack McGrory, Kim Kamdar and Hugh Davies.

The program also now accepts students who can pay for its services. And with the addition of a squash club membership and the hope to host squash tournaments, Sadler said Access will work toward transitioning from philanthropy-only funding to philanthropy- and revenue-based support.

So far, the program’s graduates have attended a variety of colleges and universities, among them UCSD, Princeton, Amherst, Dartmouth and Columbia. “It gives me joy” to see where the students have ended up, Sadler said.

Helping disadvantaged students succeed is “very gratifying to me personally,” he said. “I know well [that] when the guns of life start, not everyone is at the same starting line. Some people don’t even see the starting line.”

“I’m basically a social justice person. It’s in my DNA,” he added. “What drives me is that I know I was lucky to be a White male to very educated parents. What was equally lucky was that I wasn’t wealthy. So I had to earn as I went.”

He said he held two jobs during college, one as a tennis instructor during summer breaks.

From that job, Sadler said, he learned the importance of personal connection “and that we all have fears.”

“If we listen and if we’re willing to take risks, if we’re willing to be innovative … anything’s possible,” he said.

Sadler said he not only helps direct the Access program now but also gets on the squash court with the students. “I still have the finesse,” he said. “I can show them stuff. It’s a blast.

“I’m gleefully flunking retirement.”

For more information about Access Youth Academy and the new squash center, visit accessyouthacademy.org.

People in Your Neighborhood shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send an email to robert.vardon@lajollalight.com. ◆