Only an elite few tennis players on the First Coast can claim that they’ve hit balls with Andre Agassi. Former professional tennis player MaliVai “Mal” Washington has. However, Washington also knows best what it takes to share the court with a world-class athlete, or make it to a Grand Slam tournament—a 4.0 grade point average.

Local students of the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation who work hard in school score big, with opportunities to play tennis with stars like Venus Williams or go to New York to watch the U.S. Open. So it’s game on everyday after school at Washington’s 9,000-square-foot youth center, where about 150 at-risk kids, ages 5 to 18, come to play tennis, get homework tutoring and learn life skills.

“Every student needs an afterschool program,” says Washington, who moved to Ponte Vedra Beach more than 20 years ago to live near the Association of Tennis Professional’s (ATP) headquarters.

Washington, 45, first realized he enjoyed working with kids in the early ‘90s during his days as an ATP player participating in tournament-sponsored youth days. Eventually his desire to “hit some balls with kids and teach them something about tennis” grew into a passion to help struggling youth develop their potential on and off the court.

In 1994, Washington, along with his father, began a fledgling foundation, supporting a variety of charities with small donations and public appearances. But in 1996, the same year he played in the Wimbledon men’s final, he turned his charitable works into a more focused foundation, paving the way for today’s state-of-the-art youth center with tennis courts, classrooms, a fitness center, and life-changing programs in the heart of one of Jacksonville’s most struggling communities, Durkeeville.

In 1999, the foundation welcomed its first 25 students to its TNT or Tennis ‘N Tutoring program. Almost instantly the kids’ school attendance improved.

“You can’t somehow skip school or [say] ‘oh yeah I was too sick to go to school, but hey I’m going to TNT,’” Washington says. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Click here to read a success story of one of the MaliVai Washington Foundation graduates.

From the beginning, the foundation has run like a scholarship program, with behavior, scholastic and attendance requirements that students must meet to stay enrolled. Over the years, Washington and a team of dedicated board members and staff have helped thousands of children break the cycle of poverty and of dropping-out of school. Many of these kids go on to be the first in their families to graduate high school and attend college, even some as prestigious as the United States Military Academy West Point.

Washington, who also runs his own real estate firm, holds himself to the same standard as the children of Durkeeville. In 2010, he graduated from the University of North Florida, completing a journey that began at the University of Michigan more than 20 years earlier, when he left to pursue professional tennis.

“I talk so much about the importance of education,” says Washington. “If some of the students said, ‘Wow, Mr. Mal feels like it’s that important that he goes back to college when he’s in his late 30s and early 40s, then he’s walking what he preaches.’”

Washington says that developing strong youth, like those who have gone through his foundation, begins with “self,” meaning that adults need to set a good example for their own children as well as neighborhood kids.

“I put a lot of pressure on us as parents,” he says. “It’s important to show we care.”

Want to Get Involved this Holiday Season?

The Current/Sherman Group of Merrill Lynch Champions for Children Gala: On Nov. 6th enjoy an evening of celebration to raise money for the programs and services offered by the MWY Foundation.

Thanksgiving Food Drive and Basket Distribution: Volunteers are needed on November 25–26 to help pack and deliver baskets and turkeys to families in the community.

Holiday Angels Program: “Adopt” a child in need this holiday season and provide clothing and toys as gifts for Christmas Day.

For more information visit malwashington.com.