By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
Mal Washington gives some pointers on hitting a forehand to one of his students
© MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation
Kids enjoy an afternoon on court at Washington's foundation in Jacksonville
© MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation
MaliVai Washington's mornings are fast-paced and family-oriented. Around 9 a.m. one day recently, he was flipping pancakes for his two kids and making business calls. Before long, he drove into the heart of downtown Jacksonville, Fla., for a mid-day meeting with area Councilman Warren Jones in an effort to raise money and awareness for the expanded clan which bears his namesake, The MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation. It is a not-for-profit outfit of which he has been the face since 1994.
His energy and enthusiasm drive the organization, as it did his playing career. In the middle of a '90s decade in which he was one of American tennis' finest professional stars – three Davis Cups, an Olympic Games in Atlanta, four ATP singles championships and a 1996 Wimbledon final appearance to his credit – Washington decided to put his fame and earnings towards building tennis in one of, statistically, the poorest inner cities in the United States.
"Mal's a tireless promoter, so he's everywhere," said MWKF's Executive Director Terri Florio. "I've known him for 20 years, and he's been this way for 20 years – always involved and engaged."
Durkeeville, where the MWKF headquarters is located, represents the 32209 zip code of northwest Jacksonville, an area of the city that has known destitution and neglect since the 1940s. According to the 2009 State of Jacksonville's Children: Racial and Ethnic Disparities Report
, Durkeeville is highlighted as within the "Urban Core" section of Jacksonville, where nearly 40 percent of children are living below the poverty line and where the current infant mortality rate is 137 percent higher than the rate of the entire city. It is a place where incidents of teen pregnancy, juvenile crime, assault and murder occur at rates roughly 3.5 times greater than the national average.
It is a place for the foundation to start anew and look on the bright side. For starters, Florio sees variance in the preteens and adolescents who walk through the doors of the foundation's six participating sites, including Durkeeville.
"Predominantly, the kids who take part in our free or low-cost programs come from low-income areas but also many who come from the higher-income, even affluent, pockets,” Florio said. “It is a geographically diverse area, where the poorer spots are on the northern end of the (St. John's) river. We mentor a few thousand every year, between the summer camps and our more intensive core programs, so we'll get kids from many different backgrounds, from all around the city."
In May 2008, the foundation moved into its preeminent Durkeeville location, opening the MaliVai Washington Youth Center at Emmett Reed Park – a $3 million facility complete with eight tennis courts, three mini courts, a basketball court, library, classrooms, teen room, multimedia center, fitness room, kitchen, as well as the MWKF administrative offices. Drumming up great interest and recognition around the community and from its civic leaders, the foundation found honors at the national level, as well, being named by the USTA as one of the 2008 NJTL Chapters of the Year.
It was an extremely bold real estate decision to relocate to Durkeeville but one that has been paying off in bettering the area's youth.
"It is a community that has so much potential," said Washington. "I've lived here for half my life now, and where it could be is still far away from where it is currently. Through the Foundation, we can make kids realize that they can achieve great things here in Jacksonville. Many of them don't think about or can't imagine coming out of this city to go to college, become an entrepreneur or a CEO.
“More than that, I’m passionate about the potential for success in kids. With maturity, you realize the opportunities you had or missed or of which you didn’t take full advantage,” he added. “I came from a household with two parents who were deeply concerned with my success, from a perspective where I had been in 30 different countries and had seen the world. A lot of these kids are from single-parent households, where they already have knocks against them and issues with trust. We're trying to help them see that there are individuals out there who are willing to bend over backwards to see you succeed. Each year, we have between $15,000 and $25,000 in scholarships for kids to earn. We promise to do our part in showing them how to find and reach their goals. At that point, it is up to them to do theirs."
Washington officially retired from the game in 1999, but the last several years of his career were arduous ones. He battled a severe knee ailment, and he considered varying career paths off the court, eventually starting a successful real estate brokerage and investment operation, Washington Properties LLC. In the meantime, he found joy in volunteering and mentoring youth tennis players in Jacksonville-area Boys & Girls Clubs. For his efforts, he received the 1997 Boys and Girls Clubs of America CARE Award and, later, the 1999 Boys and Girls Club Man and Youth Award.
Washington's bond with the Boys and Girls Club in the late '90s blossomed into a partnership, as he realized that his foundation, which up until that point had been primarily involved with facility-building grants, needed to expand into an active, personal hand for a community desperate for help. A joint effort, they began developing what would become the foundation's flagship program for youth tennis, "TnT." Designed for first graders through fifth graders, the program continues to offer academic mentoring, homework assistance and life-skills classes, in addition to tennis instruction and activities. Today, it serves over 150 children.
"Without education, these kids don't stand a chance," said Florio. "They know that they also need to hit academic standards to go on field trips and have special privileges. We take a lot of our high schoolers and even some of our middle schoolers on college tours. We instill these ideas early so they know exactly what we expect of them and out of them."
With February now Black History Month, MaliVai Washington contemplated what it means to him and his place in the celebration.
"When I look back on my career – the 1990s – I had a dream existence,” he said. “I try to put myself in their position and then ask myself, 'How does one place himself in that era of discrimination and racism, with the added expectation to excel and survive?' I have huge admiration for that type of determination. To be at the top of your sport is hard enough from an athletic standpoint, before all those added pressures.
“Again, I think, 'Wow, we really have it good today,' especially now that we have the opportunity to make a lot of money, but yet some of the black athletes nowadays still complain,” he added. “That wasn't the case when (Arthur) Ashe, (Althea) Gibson, (Muhammad) Ali and Jackie Robinson paved the way for all this, as cliché as that may sound."
Relating back to his career, Washington identified as being proud of his heritage but did not feel the weight of a race on his shoulders.
"The pressure was more internal to succeed. I never thought of it as trying to be the best black tennis player. Rather, I was constantly working on my game and technique so that I could one day be the best tennis player, of any color, in the world. My winning and losing came inside the lines, not outside of them. In that way, again, I was lucky. You certainly have a different perspective when you reach your 30s and 40s than you do when you are in your 20s."
Right now, the high school kids in the "Learning Is for Everyone" (LIFE) program are preparing individual reports as part of their celebration of the annual remembrance of important people and events in the history of African Diaspora. Around 90 percent of the kids who will take part in MWKF events each year are African-American, a figure which shoots up to 98 percent when considering only the core programs.
"We pay particular attention to the high schoolers, trying to get them through the year,” Washington said. “They are simultaneously the most influential group on the younger kids and the ones that can be best influenced by the material we teach. We are invested in these young men and women, having worked with them for years and years, and it is very important that our kids realize where America was at some point."
For more information about the MaliVai Washington Foundation and their upcoming events, check out www.malwashington.com