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Malivai Youth Foundation Lays a Solid Foundation for the Future

By David Boegaard

The best teachers are often the people who have worked hard to learn what they teach, and have loved the practice so deeply that they wish to help others to do what they have done. That kind of love for tennis is what made MaliVai Washington into a great teacher. Ultimately seeking to have an even bigger impact, Washington set up the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation to help teach urban youths the sport of tennis.

Washington began playing tennis at the age of five at the encouragement of his father, a professor who also used local courts to teach the sport to underprivileged youth. Washington played throughout high school and college at University of Michigan, and eventually entered the professionals. Washington went on to very successful tennis career, including four career title wins and the distinction of being one of only two black men to reach the men's singles final at Wimbledon. At one point Washington was ranked the 11th best men's tennis player in the world.

As Washington's successes increased, he began to search for a way to convey the game that he had loved so much, but also satisfy an abiding desire to help young people who would not traditionally be introduced to tennis. This led Washington to set up the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation in 1994.

"He wanted to have a more lasting impact on youth in his 'adopted' home town and to develop long lasting relationships with youth where he could watch them develop into successful young adults over the years," says Terri Florio, the Executive Director/CEO of the Foundation. After a series of injuries began to interfere with his training and competitions, Washington quite competitive tennis, and dedicated himself more fully to the Foundation, as well as the brokerage company he heads in Jacksonville.

Today, the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation encourages Jacksonville youth to engage in tennis. Such work is practically necessary for tennis to reach poorer kids, especially in an urban context. "Many youth are exposed to football and basketball at a young age in the urban core," notes Florio, "but few are exposed to the life-long sport of tennis."

And that is one of the great advantages of tennis over many other sports. Unlike football, tennis will never leave young people with concussions and is far less likely to create permanent injury and pain. But it is also a great sport for teaching discipline and endurance, as well as allowing for great personal victory. "Our programs are designed toward activities that provide youth with the resources they need to succeed in life," says Florio.

A major part of the work of the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation is focused around the TnT and TLC programs. "The TnT program serves youth K-12," says Florio. "TLC is our program for K-2nd grade students which focuses on basic life skills and significant academic enrichment." Both programs give students access to computers, educational games, and one on one mentorship. There is also plenty of time for tennis lessons and homework.

The cumulative effect of these programs is immense. They help to provide space and activities for young people after school, especially an introduction to the otherwise distant game of tennis. By encouraging fun, competitive and constructive work and peer relationships, the programs help young people to learn subtle life skills that are difficult to learn on one's own. And the programs also provide a needed relief for many working parents who are striving to make a good life for their children but cannot always be around to make sure they are not getting into trouble.

As the students get older, the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation continues to provide developmentally appropriate instruction. By 3rd grade, kids are being introduced to life skills that are important, but not always obvious. "In 3rd-5th grade, focus is on making good choices, sportsmanship, hygiene, cultural competencies, getting along with others, and other key skills," Florio mentions.

Middle school and high school are the beginning of the Leadership program. Here the Foundation tackles the whole gamut of issues facing young people, from academics to sports to college and career tours to pregnancy and crime prevention discussions. "Youth are provided with the tools and resources they need to stay away from negative choices, which in turn, allows them to be more successful and to do better academically."

These are skills that support the development, academic and otherwise, of all students. But they are skills more easily passed on by the wealthy with the time and resources to do so. "Because our program focuses on low income youth in the urban core," Florio notes, "the life skills classes are as critical, and at times more critical, than the academic support and tennis instruction provided."

It is a rare person who can manage to have such a successful career and then do so much good for so many. MaliVai Washington and the Foundation that he has developed have been a wonderful boon to all the people of Jacksonville. When the youth are flourishing, the town flourishes. The Foundation started with tennis, but it's impossible to say where it will end.

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