Turning Teens Into Champions

Three Takeaways:

MaliVai Washington
  • Former world-ranked tennis pro MaliVai Washington started his foundation to share his love of tennis with low-income youth.
  • Over 26 years, the offerings have expanded to include academic and mentorship programs serving 500 students a year.
  • The youth who go through the foundation’s programs have a 100% high school graduation rate. MWYF also has funded over $1.4 million in college scholarships since 1996.

In the game of tennis, each scoreless player starts with “love.” So too does the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation, which introduces at-risk youth to the sport, along with a wide range of after-school activities that aim to set them up for success. The program was started by former tennis star MaliVai Washington, who was ranked number 11 in the world in 1992 and became a Wimbledon finalist four years later.

Now broker-owner of Diamond Life Real Estate Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., Washington has brought his ongoing passion for tennis to a place he believed he could have the greatest impact: Jacksonville’s 32209 ZIP code, one of the city’s most crime-ridden, poverty-stricken areas.

Over 26 years, MWYF not only has introduced tennis to more than 20,000 youths from kindergarten through high school through its clinics but also provided academic and life skills training. The goal is to break the cycle of despair common in the larger community.

To participate in the program, families pay a modest yearly fee of $25 per child. By comparison, after-school care at their school would cost more than $1,000 per year.

The results are tremendous: 100% of high school–aged MWYF participants graduate on time, and 100% of them continue either to higher education or to military service. In the surrounding community, the high school dropout rate exceeds 20%. And no MWYF participant has become a teen parent since the foundation opened its doors.

In a ZIP code with a 35% poverty rate, MWYF is on a mission not just to influence one life at a time but to spur positive changes for families well into the future.

Washington has helped raise “tens of millions of dollars” to expand MWYF’s reach while inspiring thousands of volunteers to participate. “So much of success has to do with access to opportunity,” Washington says. “For every student who comes through our doors, we want to help them realize their potential, regardless of the neighborhood they’re from, race, or background.”

Tennis has been a launchpad for that. “I wanted to introduce them to what I consider the greatest sport in the world,” says Washington, whose father introduced him to tennis when he was 5. “I want them to gain from it what I did over the years—sportsmanship, dedication and commitment—skills that can serve you well in life.”

Most of MWYF’s youths are unaware of Washington’s tennis celebrity past. In addition to his four career titles, in 1996 he became the first African American man named to the U.S. Olympic tennis team. He retired in 1999 following a recurring knee injury.

To most of the youth enrolled in the program, he’s just friendly, approachable “Mr. Mal,” rooting for their success.

On and Off the Court

The MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation began on two abandoned tennis courts at Emmett Reed Park in Jacksonville. Washington was joined by Terri Florio, who serves as the executive director and was formerly an Association of Tennis Professionals tournament director. They quickly realized the children’s needs stretched beyond tennis.

The foundation held an essay contest for middle schoolers to compete to attend a professional tennis tournament. The essays submitted were largely incomprehensible and filled with grammatical errors. “How could we just teach them how to hit a forehand and backhand when we realized there were so many more needs beyond tennis?” Washington recalls.

The after-school program was renamed “TnT” — Tennis-n-Tutoring. Today, MWYF, which began with 25 kids, serves more than 500 students annually. Mentors and community volunteers also provide homework assistance, academic support and life skills training such as leadership and cooking.

In 2008, MWYF expanded its footprint, opening eight new tennis courts nearby including a center court with a grandstand and a 9,200-square-foot, $3.8 million youth center. A 14,000-square-foot, $5.5 million teen center called Club 904, named for the Jacksonville area code, opened in 2020. The teen center provides academic assistance, job and leadership training, and elective courses in STEM, music, real estate, and more.

“Without MaliVai’s vision, direct engagement and continued support, none of this could have happened,” Florio says. “Tennis may have been the cornerstone but it’s now just a catalyst to foster so much more.”

A Break Point for Generations

Keanna Bell, now 29, was involved in the foundation from age 8 until high school graduation. She instantly developed a love for tennis, and her MWYF involvement led to many opportunities: an internship with the Jacksonville Sharks professional indoor football team; mentors who rallied for her and even won her a private lesson with tennis star Venus Williams at a MWYF fundraising gala; and a college scholarship through MWYF’s $1.4 million-plus program.

“Mal has inspired me throughout my life,” Bell says. “He’s so positive with his outlook in life. We came from this not-so-good part of town, but he showed me it’s what you do with the opportunities that you do have.” Bell graduated from Florida Atlantic University debt-free in 2015. She opened an event planning company, Creativity by Latrice, at age 19 with her sister. She also works as a MWYF office coordinator.

Over two decades, she’s watched MWYF growth from two dilapidated courts to thriving teen and youth centers serving hundreds of kids each year. “The best thing I learned was to dream a little bigger, and know that it’s possible for our dreams to come true, too,” Bell says.

Washington proudly talks about MWYF alumni like Bell—those who’ve become the first in their families to graduate college or buy their first home. In keeping with this future-focused approach to youth development, he even teaches an elective in the MWYF after-school program on real estate and finance. “I’m a big believer in real estate as a long-term wealth builder,” Washington says. “My hope is to plant the seed. Maybe something we say triggers change in the future.”

He also sought to ensure the foundation would be able to support the next generation of youth and beyond. They’ve established a $1 million endowment to secure its legacy. “I want the foundation to be a staple in the 32209 ZIP code for decades to come,” Washington says. “To think a kid might look back in 2040 and realize something in 2022 changed their life, put their family and their future kids on a prosperous track all because they joined my foundation – that’s my hope in what we can achieve.”


Contact Washington at malw@diamondliferealestate.com, and learn more at malwashington.com.


Advertisement

All NAR Good Neighbor Programs: