by David Chapman
Like any successful athlete or business leader, MaliVai Washington knew when to adapt.
In 1997, the former tennis star founded the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation to serve local children by teaching free tennis lessons to local Boys & Girls Clubs, but two years later he realized the lessons could be fused with education to offer much more.
In 1999, he launched the Tennis-n-Tutoring, or TnT, program in Durkeeville at the Emmett Reed Community Center. His goal was to use tennis as a tool for children to realize the importance of an education and become responsible citizens within their community.
“I felt we could do so much more for them,” said Washington. “Their success is a direct correlation to their level of education.”
The foundation is celebrating its 15th year this week, a milestone Washington said was hard to envision when he started the program.
Yet, after more than 20,000 children have been served and tangible data show higher graduation rates and other achievements, Washington said he’d put the program up against any in the country.
With help from the community, the MaliVai Washington Youth Center was built in 2008 to better serve the foundation and program.
The 9,400-square-foot facility has classrooms, media centers, administrative offices and, of course, tennis courts.
Almost all of the children in the program come from within a one-mile radius of the center. Washington wanted to establish a sense of neighborhood and community pride.
Budget challenges aside, Washington said some of the most difficult moments have been with the children.
Some have grown up in troubled homes. Others have witnessed serious crime or have been introduced to criminal elements by others.
Washington has attended the funerals of family and friends of some of the program’s participants, which has been tough, he said.
But Washington and the foundation’s staff have brought a positive influence and role models to the foundation’s children to help them make positive choices in their personal lives, education and future.
Washington is able to spend parts of some days at the facility, encouraging the children and playing tennis, but much of his time is spent spreading the word in the community of the program’s success.
He leaves the full-time operations to Executive Director Terri Florio and almost 20 full- and part-time staff members.
More than 160 children are in the program, with another 50 or so on a waiting list because of limited funds and the goal of effectively serving each student.
When asked about the foundation’s future, he paused.
“I wouldn’t have envisioned where we are today,” he said. “But in 15 years we will be celebrating our 30th year here in Jacksonville making a difference. We’ll continue to grow, but we’re going to do it right.”