Tennis prevails in one of Florida’s most dangerous neighborhoods after grant from USTA Florida Foundation
With the help of the USTA Florida Foundation, one of the most successful youth tennis programs in Florida is again making a difference with at-risk youth who are striving to play competitive and eventually collegiate tennis — but in the most dangerous and difficult area of Jacksonville.
The MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation had until this year been unable to host its MWYF Development Team due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But after an 18-month absence, the foundation in 2022 with the help of a grant from the USTA Florida Foundation hosted a team which competed in the USTA Junior Team Tennis league, USTA tournaments, and other development activities that included athletes from grades 2-12.
“This year we re-started the development team to move kids back into competition, along with other development activities such as attending college matches at universities and at the USTA National Campus in Orlando,” said MWYF Executive Director Terri Florio. “Although all MWYF students play tennis, those with the passion and ability for tennis need extra lessons, playing time and competition in order to remain in the sport. Many of our top players would leave the sport if their only opportunity was to participate in the recreational tennis that the majority of MWYF players play.”
Located near downtown Jacksonville, the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation center provides the only tennis opportunities for youth in low income, at-risk communities. The center and programs are located in Health Zone 1, which has the highest poverty rate in the city, as well as the lowest educational attainment rates. Nonetheless, since its founding in 1996 the program boasts a 100% on-time graduation rate, with a promotion rate of 93-98% annually.
“First quarter [this year], more than 50% of our middle and high school students had a GPA of 3.0 or higher,” Florio said. “MWYF is focused on ensuring the physical, mental and emotional well being of our young athletes, along with academic and tennis success.”
She says an integral part of the program is making kids feel part of a team. Players compete together in the fall, spring and summer, “supporting each others’ success, and encouraging each other in their failure.”
“For the first time, we had kids participating in the competitive part of our program from 2nd grade through high school,” Florio said. “During Team Tennis and USTA Level 7’s, our kids were starting to have some success. This included a 3rd place finish for a first-time participant and multiple wins in Junior Team Tennis. We also purchased uniform shirts for our kids so they could feel part of a team and not feel out of place when competing.”
Among the many benefits of the no-cost program, students this spring were able to watch University of Florida and University of North Florida collegiate matches and visit the campuses. Statistics show that students who visit college campuses are much more likely to attend college.
“The program allowed our players to see areas of the community outside of their neighborhood,” Florio said. “The required minimum GPA to participate, encouraging players to stay focused on academics in addition to athletics, and the zero tolerance for poor sportsmanship rolled into other areas of their life, where arguments often lead to violence.”
Other financial contributors to the program this year were the City of Jacksonville which supplied in-kind use of tennis courts, and Duval County Public Schools which supplied in-kind access to student report cards and school discipline records.
Adrienne, a program alumni and former Student Athlete of the Year, says the program is making all the difference for youth that might otherwise fall between the cracks of society.
“I credit being surrounded by strong black players and coaches which encouraged my love of tennis,” she said. “I’m very appreciative of all the staff, they all had an impact on me and how I’m moving forward in my future. I wouldn’t have gone to the University of Central Florida or graduated debt-free if it weren’t for MWYF.”
About the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation
The MWYF has been providing youth development programs in Jacksonville, Fla., since 1996. What started as a way for pro-tennis player, Olympian and Wimbledon finalist MaliVai Washington to introduce urban youth to a sport he loved, quickly blossomed into a comprehensive after-school youth development program, Tennis-n-Tutoring (TnT). To learn more go to malwashington.com.
About the USTA Florida Section Foundation
With a mission of “Changing Lives through Tennis,” the USTA Florida Section Foundation provides financial support to organizations that help people of all ages and abilities improve their health and quality of life through the great game of tennis. To learn more or to apply for a grant go to ustafloridafoundation.com.