For more than 20 years, MaliVai Washington has impacted the lives of children and young adults in Jacksonville, Florida. Through the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation (MWYF), the 1996 Wimbledon runner-up and former World No. 11 has improved opportunities for disadvantaged youths in Durkeeville, one of the most impoverished areas in the city.
The foundation is based in zip code 32209, which has a history of drug-related crime and suffered the highest number of murders in the city in 2019. The area also owns the city’s highest rates of juvenile crime, teen pregnancies and STDs. Despite the numerous challenges children face in the area, the 2009 Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award winner has made a positive impact on the lives of his students since 1997. No student has become a teen parent while active in the foundation’s program and, over the past four years, 100 per cent of children have graduated high school on time.
“This was the zip code that had the most issues. This is the zip code we wanted to be in,” said Washington. “I remember talking to the former sheriff of Jacksonville when we were having an event and he said, ‘Mal, four blocks from where we are standing right now used to be one of the biggest crack dealing corners in Jacksonville.’ I said, ‘That’s why we’re here.’
“We want to be in this location because we feel like this is where we can have the greatest impact on young people. Too many young people are falling through the cracks and if we can create some programming, with education and a tennis foundation exposing them to different things, they are going to be so much better off than having not been in the program.”
After suffering a knee injury against Gustavo Kuerten in February 1997, an injury which he describes as ‘the beginning of the end of my playing career’, Washington spent the rest of the year creating programs, fundraising and meeting with Jacksonville city government officials to turn his vision into a reality.
The foundation began with Tennis and Tutoring (TnT), aimed at elementary school children from five years of age, but soon added a Leadership program to support students through middle school and high school. The foundation has since expanded to support students during and after college, as they seek employment in their chosen fields. Washington’s students have become real estate agents, local chefs and paediatricians. In fact, former student Marc Atkinson is the current Director of Tennis at the foundation.
“From TnT and leadership to working with students in college and after college, our students, in their mid-20s, are coming back to us and using us as a resource which is what I absolutely love,” said Washington. “We have our tentacles out in the community and we have had a lot of people who have supported us over the years who are still willing to help out in some way.”
In the next two months, the foundation will open a new Teen Center — after raising $5m in funding — creating the opportunity to nearly double the number of students served in the foundation’s elementary program and triple student capacity in its middle school and high school programs.
Washington’s ultimate goal is not related to the profile or size of his foundation. The four-time ATP Tour titlist is simply focused on growing his reach in the local community and having an impact in that area across multiple generations.
“I am all about longevity. We want to be a staple in the community,” said Washington. “We have been here for 24 years in Jacksonville and I’d like to think that long after I’m gone and long after our executive director and board members are gone and some of our students are my age now, I’d like to think that the foundation is still striving. That is my goal.
“A generation, two generations from now… I want people to look back and say something happened in 2019 or 2020 in our family that changed the direction our family was going in. I want them to be able to point back to the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation and say, ‘Something happened at that program that changed the trajectory of a few lives in our family.’ If they can look back and say that, we have accomplished what we set out to do.”
ATP and its staff have been long-time supporters of the Foundation. With the Tour’s Americas headquarters located within a 30-minute drive in nearby Ponte Vera Beach, ATP staff serve as chaperones on field trips and as mentors to assist with tennis and tutouring at the centre. ATP staff have served on the Foundation’s board and some staff sponsor children individually. In addition to providing financial aid, ATP also collects food every Thanksgiving for the Foundation’s food drive.
You set up the Mal Washington Youth Foundation in the year following your run to the 1996 Wimbledon final. Can you reflect on those achievements and did your Wimbledon success give you a greater platform to reach children through your foundation?
We started the foundation, on paper, in 1994 but it wasn’t until 1997 that we actually started growing programs and creating programs in Jacksonville, Florida. One of the things I have often said is the Wimbledon final in 1996 was really the pinnacle of my tennis career and, right after Wimbledon, participating in the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 was very special.
Unfortunately, seven months later, not knowing it at the time, injuring my knee in Brazil playing Davis Cup was the beginning of the end of my career. That was the downhill slide into two surgeries and rehabilitation on my knee. Ironically… having had that first knee surgery, what it allowed me to do was dedicate a significant amount of time to growing the foundation.
I was literally just in Jacksonville for the last 10 months of 1997 and, during those 10 months, that is when the foundation really grew and started to growing into what it is today. That is when we started creating programs. That is when we had our first fundraiser in September 1997.
The knee surgery, for my tennis career, sucked. But, for the foundation, it allowed me to sit in a lot of meetings and meet a lot of people, a lot of corporate folks and a lot of people in Jacksonville city government to tell them what we were trying to do. Having somewhat of a higher profile, having just [reached the final] at Wimbledon, it was a bit easier to get in to talk to people.
In 2009, you were awarded the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award. Can you discuss that achievement and what impact Arthur had on your life?
Getting the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award was very special and to be, in some way, compared to Arthur is very special. But, I often say it is kind of misleading because there were so many people who… could have been right up there with me. My name is on the organisation, but we have my executive director, our leadership team, we have a board of directors, we have full-time staff, we have part-time staff, we have junior staff. There are so many people involved in the foundation. I would like to think the entire organisation looks at it as our award, not just an award that Mal got.
I had the opportunity to see Arthur play live once. I could barely see him, my dad was holding me up and we were watching him on an outside court at the US Open back in the late 70s… He didn’t want to be remembered as a tennis player. That was just a part of his life. I certainly don’t want to be remembered just as a tennis player. That was just a part of my life. I think there is so much more to do and accomplish and so many people to impact beyond how I hit a tennis ball.
Can you tell us about a success story from the foundation?
One of our great success stories is a young man [named Marc Atkinson], who grew up in the foundation from the sixth grade. He’ll tell you, he failed the sixth grade right before he came into our program. He grew to love the sport of tennis, graduated from high school, went to Florida A&M University and walked onto the tennis team there. [He] struggled and struggled and, four years later, he graduated which was awesome. Then he came to work for us full-time and has been working for us full-time [as our Director of Tennis] for a number of years. Now the young man is not so young anymore… he’s married with three kids.
Your Youth Centre opened in 2008. How were you operating before that moment and what did the opening of the facility mean for your Foundation moving forward?
Before that period, we were operating in a city-owned facility directly across the street. When we started our after school program in the late 90s, when we started Tennis and Tutoring, it was for 25 kids. We grew to 50 kids the next year, then 75 kids and what we realised very quickly was, if nothing else was working, if we weren’t doing anything else, we were getting the kids to go to school. You couldn’t come to the after school TnT program unless you were in school that day.
We looked at that and said, ‘This kid missed 22 days of school last year and this year, since he has been in the program, he missed six days.’ There were stories like that over and over and over again, so we realised if nothing else was working, that’s working. How do we continue to grow and expand the programs?
We went around a few different sites throughout the country, looking at other programs and asking the question, ‘How do we grow effectively and efficiently?’ For us, that was going on a campaign and building a youth centre to allow us to more than double the number of kids we were serving and just make deeper inroads into the community. That’s the whole goal.
With our Teen Center that is under construction now, I basically asked the same question. How do we grow and how do we do it effectively? Can we grow? Can we raise the funds and, if we can, do we want to do that? My message was, ‘I don’t want to say no to those questions just because it is going to be tough. If we can go through some growing pains but, in the end, serve way more kids and do it effectively, let’s do that.’ Everyone got on board and that is what we chose to do.