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I Support Tennis: MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation

June 8, 2009 09:35 AM
MaliVai Washington works with a program participant during a clinic.
A MWKF after-school volunteer helps a child with homework.
Kids in the after-school TnT (Tennis 'n' Tutoring) program.

By Tori Townsend

The MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation (MWKF) promotes academic achievement and positive life skills to Jacksonville, Fla., youth through the game of tennis. By correlating success on the court with success in life, the organization helps foster leadership, sportsmanship, self-esteem, confidence, discipline, accountability and the value of hard work, teamwork and individual effort.

Founded in 1994 by former Wimbledon finalist MaliVai Washington, the foundation programs have touched the lives of more than 14,000 Jacksonville youths. Strategically placed in the 32209 zip code of Jacksonville where there are high teen pregnancy, high school dropout and murder rates, the MWKF has found a way to combat a trend that seems unchangeable, simply by using the game of tennis.

What does this all mean to you as a USTA Florida member?

By being a member of USTA Florida, your membership dollars count. Did you know that 90% of each membership dollar that USTA Florida makes goes back into community programs like the MWKF? Without community support and funds coming in, the MWKF would have a difficult time running the foundation, let alone changing any child’s life.

“The USTA and USTA Florida have supported this project tremendously and if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be sitting here helping thousands of children,” Washington said. “I can’t say enough for the job that the USTA and USTA Florida does in giving back to the community; so much of the funds that are raised are given right back and we are one of those organizations that these funds are supporting.”

Washington encourages everyone to continue to be part of the USTA and USTA Florida because look where the money is being spent -- at the grassroots level.

“You are literally saving lives and helping thousands of thousands of kids over the years stay on the right path,” he said.

The foundation also does a number of charity projects in the community and gives city youth an opportunity to believe in themselves.

Ashley Strickland, MWKF special events and community outreach coordinator, got involved with the organization in seventh grade at age 12. Now, at 23, she has a degree in hand from the University of North Florida and gives back on a daily basis to the organization that has given her so much.

“I didn’t know tennis would have gotten me to where I am today,” she said. “It was the best thing to graduate. My mom was so happy.”

As a former student in the program, Strickland serves as a role model to the hundreds of kids who walk into the 9,300 sq. foot building -- complete with eight tennis courts, three QuickStart Tennis courts, a computer room, classrooms, community room, teen room and basketball court – each and every everyday.

“The work we do is paying off and not only do I serve as an example, but there are a lot of other young kids that have gone through the program that have become successful,” she said. “That says something to people who don’t know about us and say ‘what we are doing over here is working.’ It is more than just tennis.”

The Stories

Sixteen year-old Keanna Bell has been going to the MWKF facility since she was three years old. Now, as a sophomore, she serves as a mentor to others through the Take Stock in Children program and plans to attend college, majoring in business or psychology.

In 2003, she received the George M. Soper Memorial Trophy and Player of the Year Award, which is presented to a student who has the best “all-around achievements” for the year -- on the court, in the classroom and in the community.

“When I came into the program, not going to college was not an option,” said Bell, who also received the President’s Award and multiple scholarships towards college.

When asked how she would feel if the MWKF community program was gone, a momentary pause was followed by an honest answer.

“I don’t even know what I would do. To me, it is like my second home here. When things aren’t going good at home, you always have another family to come to,” she said. “That would be like moving half of my life because I am always here throughout the week. I come here every day, on the weekends and get to travel with my friends. I have traveled to more places with the MWKF than I have with my own family.”

Brian Brooks, 18, had a similar answer.

“I really couldn’t say where my life would be because after school, most teens don’t really have anything to do and they are just looking for trouble,” said Brooks, who came to the MWKF in fourth grade. “All the staff really help us with our school work and making sure we are doing the right thing so we can be successful in life.”

Like Bell, Brooks has received multiple scholarships through the foundation, which come in part from USTA and USTA Florida grants generated by membership dollars. With support from the MWKF, its staff, friends and other community associations, Brooks sees a life of possibility and service to others rather than disappointment.

“It is good to give back because you never know that you could be in that same position,” he said.

The foundation has also taken him one step closer towards accomplishing his dream of owning a restaurant in the future.

“I would cook soul food,” he said.

I Support Tennis

In an effort to raise awareness, USTA Florida has launched the campaign “I Support Tennis,” with a goal to share stories that demonstrate occasions where membership dollars have directly impacted the lives of people in communities. As you can see, the MVWK is a true example of a Community Tennis Association that is making a difference by using tennis as a vehicle to motivate kids to live a better life.

Without your USTA membership dollars, community tennis programs throughout the state, and the people’s lives they are affecting, would vanish.

You ask, “Where do my membership dollars go?”

The answer: “To support tennis programs in communities throughout Florida so that the next generation will play the lifetime sport of tennis -- on renovated tennis courts, with proper equipment and with a smile on their face.”

To become a USTA member or for more information, check out the membership link at USTA.com.

 

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