It was at a neighborhood block party when Marc Atkinson had his first experience with tennis. He was twelve years old and had a rough summer.

“I had failed the sixth grade, and was sent to a drug education youth camp in Mayport,” he says.

Atkinson was hanging out with a group of friends at the block party, when Terri Florio approached the young men and asked if they wanted to play tennis. They said yes, and she pulled rackets and a ball out of the trunk of the car.

“We set up a shoe in the middle of the road, and pretended it was a net.” Atkinson says.

After the pick-up match, Florio asked if they wanted to sign up for a new program at the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation. The Tennis and Tutoring program (TNT) was just getting off the ground, and Atkinson was its founding student.

“Terri asked if I wanted to sign up. None of my friends were playing tennis, so I decided to give it a shot.” Atkinson says.

The TNT program follows a sort of “pay to play” model. Take the time to do well in school, which will pay off by allowing you the time to play tennis at the foundation youth center.

Atkinson fell in love with tennis, and he wanted as much time on the court as possible. He went from failing the sixth grade, to maintaining above a 3.5 GPA throughout middle school. Atkinson continued to keep his grades up and play competitive tennis in high school. He walked on to the tennis team his freshman year at Florida A & M University. Atkinson graduated from college in 2012 with a B.A. in Sociology and a Minor in Psychology. Today, he is the Team Coordinator at the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation working with high school students on meeting their requirements to graduate. What was a fledging program of only 25 students when he started as a member of TNT in 2000, now inspires upwards of 145 students a year.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know where I would be now.” Atkinson says.“I come from the same neighborhood that our kids do, and I can show that if you work hard you can become whoever you want to be.”

For more information on how you can get involved as a mentor or volunteer at the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation, visit them online at www.malwashington.com.