“Our simple goal is to make sure each student finishes high school, goes to college, or has a real good alternative plan,” explains Robert Graham, executive director of the nonprofit, year-round sports and education program known as The Santa Barbara School of Squash (SBSOS). “So far, we’ve been 100 percent successful. Every single one of our students has been the first in their family to go to college.”
Just like Robert himself — modest, steady, committed — the School of Squash, which was founded in 2006, has been making a great impact in our community by using squash as a motivating factor. Students from 5th to 12th grade who qualify for the National School Lunch Program are guided to realize their full potential through a six-day-a-week after-school program that involves academics, community service, mentoring, and sports. The more I find about this transformational program, the more I wonder about the squash part of its name.
“We’ve had so many conversations about changing our name, for it doesn’t tell our story,” acknowledges Robert, who was a founding board member and became the school’s leader in 2014. “People think we’re a sports program for rich Montecito students. People see squash as elitist.”
But the School of Squash is primarily an academic and mentoring program, disguised as an athletic endeavor. “Squash is a fun, athletic, tough, uncommon sport,” Robert explains. “None of their peers are playing it and it serves as a hook. If they came to just get an education, they wouldn’t enjoy coming to us. Plus they do get to play and blow off steam.”
SBSOS reaches a wide spectrum of students, from honors kids to those who are not naturally academically gifted. “We strive to get them into the top colleges,” he says. “We look for a kid we know we can help, and is motivated to receive help, and will meet all of our expectations.”
Students sign a contract, and they have to commit to the program. “Most importantly, we become their extended family,” Robert says.
Students are picked up from their respective schools (currently 13 different ones) and taken most days to the Santa Barbara Athletic Club; they also go one day to the YMCA on Hitchcock Way and another to the Westside Neighborhood Center. The program starts at 3:30 p.m., and usually starts with an hour of squash followed by an hour of academics.
And the squash itself also pays off sometimes. “Some of our students have gone to play squash in college,” he says. “One got a scholarship to play at Bates College.”
Robert was born in England, just outside of London. In 1974, when he was six years old, Robert started playing squash. He was playing tournaments by nine years old, then was ranked #1 in the world for boys under 12, 14, and 16 and #6 in the world under the age of 19. He eventually achieved #30 in the world professionally.
Robert graduated from high school when he was merely 15, and had a spot secured at Nottingham University to study mechanical engineering. But he kept postponing his education due to his love of squash. But in 1992, he tore his hamstring, and didn’t play a tournament for six months.
“I never got back to the level I was at before, physically, mentally, nor financially,” he says. “I started looking for a coaching job.” That led him to California in 1994, as he knew there were more coaching jobs here. He was still ranked #1 in the United States and could also play exhibition matches.
He landed at the Santa Barbara Athletic Club and taught squash until 2012. A friend who worked at Morgan Stanley encouraged him to become a financial advisor. “I never enjoyed it, never felt it was me,” he readily admits. “I loved the aspect of helping people, but I didn’t like being a salesman.”
Today, Robert is in a comfortable place. He lives downtown near Victoria Street. Of his job leading the Santa Barbara School of Squash, he explains, “It’s really rewarding.”
Robert Graham answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you like most about your job?
I get to hang out with, and positively influence, a great bunch of kids, teach them an awesome but relatively unknown sport for this community that gave me so much joy for many years, and see them grow up into fine young men and women.
Who do you most admire?
I admire people who get knocked down in life and get back up again to fight another day, and if they get knocked down again they get back up again.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Graduating high school at 15 (after twice getting bumped up a year) and turning professional at squash a year later. I had a fantastic time traveling around the world for nine years, reaching a career high #30 world ranking, and that all lead to me moving to Santa Barbara 25 years ago.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Spending relaxing time with all my family around, or maybe lying on a beach just yards from my villa on my private island in the Caribbean as my personal assistant brings me cocktails.
What is your greatest fear?
It’s a toss up between Donald Trump winning a second term versus getting too physically incapable of playing any kind of sport.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I really don’t think I have any. I live a pretty mellow, low-key life, rarely going beyond my means. That sounds too boring — scratch that answer. Good food, nice watches, and fast cars!
What is your current state of mind?
Pretty relaxed for me. All’s well in my world right now. I’m usually focused on fundraising for SBSOS and other work-related issues.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Honesty and trustworthiness — say what you mean and mean what you say.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
People who don’t keep their word. I can’t stand someone who loses a bet with me or shakes my hand agreeing to something and then doesn’t follow through. Probably one of the worst things you can do to me.
What do you most value in friends?
Someone who’ll answer the phone and drop whatever they’re doing to come help you in a time of need. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does you really find out who your true friends are and who you can really rely on.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Someone else who knows me well should be answering these questions! Okay, faithfulness probably.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“To be honest…” and “in an ideal world…”
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d love to be able to dance well. That’ll surprise some friends and family, but it’s true. Too late now though.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d be younger, richer, and more handsome. Can that all be classed as one thing?
Where would you most like to live?
On a large boat in Monte Carlo harbor.
What is your most treasured possession?
My watch collection, though I’ve got into a bad habit of just wearing my Apple watch every day now because you can never be “too connected”! Gotta change this habit….
Who makes you laugh the most?
I love stand-up comedians. Robin Williams was probably my #1 — what an incredible talent — but also Billy Connolly, Michael McIntyre, Steve Martin, John Cleese. My English sense of humour still gets me in trouble, though even after 25 years of living in Santa Barbara and learning that I should tone it down….
What is your motto?
I have a few that I really believe it strongly: “Appreciate your family and friends, live for the here and now, travel at every opportunity, and if you want something done properly, do it yourself.”
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I’m not sure I do. I’m proud of my English heritage, so Winston Churchill comes to mind.
On what occasion do you lie?
That’s a hell of a question to end with! Surely the motto one would be better! I’m not sure I do lie, but I might if it meant not hurting someone’s feelings.