Dream still growing, thriving after 25 years for MaliVai Washington’s foundation

Former tennis star started local youth foundation started small, but it has made a massive impact in area

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Twenty-five years ago, MaliVai Washington was a young, rising tennis star coming off an appearance in the Wimbledon finals.

Even at that young age, he was determined to make a difference.

But a few months later, his world changed. Washington injured his knee in the 1997 Davis Cup. On crutches and unable to play tennis, he focused on something else — the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation.

The goal back then was multi-faceted. Washington wanted to introduce tennis to children who might not naturally come to the sport. He wanted to help grow the game. But Washington also wanted to provide academic enrichment and after-school tutoring to children.

Back then, it was just a dream.

“I can’t tell you how many business meetings that I had myself and [executive director] Terry [Florio] with various companies, CEOs, other nonprofits, a lot of individuals saying, ‘This is what I want to do. And this is what we’re trying to do here in Jacksonville.’ And it worked out good,” Washington said. “Because in terms of name recognition and notoriety, that was as big as I ever was.”

The timing of the injury, as well as the number of major American tennis players who he knew from competition, helped Washington draw some big names to early fundraising events.

“In our first annual, our major charity event, our gala, in 1997, two of the biggest names in tennis were there, Andre Agassi, and Chris Evert,” Washington said. “They were tremendous. And they’ve supported us over the years as well.”

MaliVai Washington of the United States makes a forehand return against Todd Martin during their Men's Singles Semi Final match of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship on 6 July 1996 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) (2017 Getty Images)

While those fundraising events made a difference in the early stages, Washington, and the foundation’s executive director, Terri Florio, have been able to sustain the impact of the foundation for the past 25 years.

And the impact has been significant.

At first, they partnered with the Boys and Girls Club. Since then, the roster has grown dramatically.

Since the inception of the foundation, more than 800 kids have been enrolled in the programs and 100% of them have graduated high school in four years. None have become teen parents. And only five have been involved in the juvenile justice system.

In 2019, the last full school year before the pandemic, every single student in the program was promoted to the next grade. This is from a group made up predominantly of Black children (88%) from families with an average household income of just $21,000 per year.

Washington says one of his goals is to convince every kid to go out for his or her high school tennis team which helps build a pro-tennis community around them, something that doesn’t always occur in their world.

“I’d love all of our young players to play on their high school team. They would never dream of playing high school tennis when they were a kid. Whether you’re at Andrew Jackson or Robert E. Lee, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, someday I want to play on the tennis team,’ Washington said.

“And when you’re a kid growing up in the (322)09 zip code, you’re probably thinking football and basketball. But I love it when being on their high school team is one of their goals, and they achieve that.”

What’s next for the Malivai Washington Youth Foundation? He expects the work to continue far beyond his life.

“I wanted to try to do something that was sustainable,” Washington said. “And fortunately, with a lot of support, financial support, moral support, volunteer support, board member and staff support, we’ve been able to do it for 25 years.”

One of his biggest tennis success stories is Mark Atkinson, who came into the program in sixth grade, less than four years after the foundation was launched. He got serious about tennis a few years later, joined the team at Lee High School, and went on to play at Florida A&M. Now, Atkinson is back as the head pro at the foundation. He says playing tennis kept him out of trouble as a kid.

Now, he’s the one giving back.

And it all started with the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation.

MaliVai Washington gives a tennis lesson for one of the students at his foundation. (Credit: MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation)