In three decades of running the Memphis Area Youth Association, Regina and Frederick Tappan have never turned a child away.
“Whoever walked in the door was accepted as part of the organization. We didn’t turn any child around regardless of size or background. Whatever they needed we provided for them,” said Regina Tappan.
Founded in 1984, MAYA is a nonprofit after-school program based at 5395 Elvis Presley Boulevard just south of the Whitehaven Walmart.
From 6 to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, Tappan and her team of coaches work with girls aged four to 16 years old from all over the city of Memphis.
The Tappans started MAYA in 1984 at the Mitchell Community Center on 602 West Mitchell Road. In the beginnings of the program, they offered basketball. As the basketball team grew, they decided to complement offerings with a dance team.
Despite no experience as a cheerleader or coach, Regina stepped up to the challenge with an overall goal to build kids’ self-esteem and serve as a resource for busy parents.
As interest grew, the Tappans moved MAYA from the Mitchell Community Center to their own facility on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Needing more funding, they decided to make MAYA a nonprofit.
The Memphis Area Youth Association minis group, which is made up of people in the 4th grade and under, practice a cheer routine. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“I’ve always heard that we’re the best-kept secret in Whitehaven because we’re so affordable, but there are things each girl and each team member needs. Some kids drop out because of lack of being able to afford competition fees or whatever they have to get. We can sponsor some of our fundraisers, but the need is so big,” she said.
The basketball program, which hosts 15 boys, now falls under the umbrella of the couples’ church, Eureka True Vine Baptist on 3510 Millbranch Road.
Now MAYA has 90 kids total participating in four dance teams and two cheer teams. The largest part of the organization is the Memphis All-Stars, a cheer team with 68 girls and two boys.
In 1987, the Memphis All-Star Team began to compete locally. By 2002, they were competing nationally giving the kids an opportunity to venture outside of Memphis.
“Some of these kids have never been out of the city and we’ve taken them to Florida, Nashville, Knoxville, St Louis, Alabama, Atlanta, New Orleans, and more; places you can go on a bus and get back really quickly,” she said. “This is a way that my husband and I give back to the community. I don’t get a salary, but my coaches — a majority of which were brought up through the program —do.”
Candice Wright, a head coach, started in MAYA when she was in the first grade. Jaylen Bolden started when she was four years old and now attends the University of Memphis but still coaches in her free time.
“I’m so happy that they come back and help and share their talents with young impressionable girls,” Regina said. “We’ve had no girls to become pregnant while in the program. We’re big on that and trying to instill setting goals high.”
Regina moved to Whitehaven with her family when she was in the seventh grade and has watched the neighborhood change over the years, namely a decline in youth activities.
The Memphis Area Youth Association cheer and dance teams practice at the facility at 5395 Elvis Presley Boulevard. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“We used to have a movie theatre in the mall and a bowling alley in Whitehaven plaza. Now, you have to go outside of the community and parents are so busy they don’t have the time to go to places outside of the community. Yeah, they can go to Southaven, but what about things to do in Whitehaven?” she said.
As teenagers, Regina said that she and her husband were aided by their communities. They walked home from school, but neighbors checked on them. They found role models in the church, which is another reason they felt the need to be a resource in the community. They wanted to give other children the experiences they had growing up of being surrounded by a caring village.
Regina said the community as a whole needs to assist parents who are, “working so hard to provide for their children that they don’t have time to raise them.”
MAYA, she said, is filling that need.
Tabitha Jones, 29, started cheering with MAYA when she was five years old. She credits the organization for building her self-esteem, stamina and giving her the leadership skills she needed to help her get through college and beyond.
Originally from East Memphis, Jones now lives in California. Through MAYA she coached and mentored other girls while she was in high school. She took her skills to the Grizzlies as a member of their dance squad and eventually performed with the Sacramento Kings. Now, she works as a nurse.
The Memphis Area Youth Association is made up of five different teams from four-year-olds to 10th graders.The group, founded by Regina Tappan, works with students in cheerleading and dance. Many students have gone on to receive scholarships and worked in professional dance. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“I feel the organization helped mold me into the successful woman I man now. The skills I learned taught me how to be dedicated to something, how to hold yourself accountable, how to be prompt — all of the things you need as an adult,” she said. “They instilled it in me at such a young age. I feel that once it’s in you, no one can take it away.”
Jones said as a child, she didn’t always understand what her parents and MAYA was teaching her, but she appreciates the way it manifested into her adult life.
“Had my mom allowed me to quit, I don’t know if I would have been a nurse. There are times I wanted to quit nursing school, but life is hard and that organization prepared me for the real world,” she said.
Jones said when she thinks about the world we live in today and how it is presented to kids, it’s easy for them to be persuaded into things that are harmful if they aren't rooted. She also said that working with groups like MAYA teaches youth both racial and economic diversity.
“We were an all-black squad competing against white girls. Some girls didn’t have the same resources as us and despite economic differences within the squad, we moved as one,” she said. “It showed me empathy because it taught me to appreciate what I have and what my friends didn’t have. It taught me to give.”
Jones visits Memphis occasionally to mentor girls on the current MAYA cheer and dance squads. Some of the girls she mentored as a teen keep in touch with her and still call her for advice.
“Being part of MAYA taught me what is really important in life. It brought me countless relationships and friendships that I cherish. I have a mentor in Ms. Regina that I can call her at any given time and she will answer,” she said. “I am forever grateful for the experience.”