Many junior tennis players have a reputation for being spoiled brats who throw tantrums on the court and expect the adults around them to cater to their every need.
Emma Wiesenfeld is the extreme opposite.
When the 10-year-old from downtown Miami heard that her beloved tennis coach Juandell Brunner (“Coach Juan”) had a stroke on October 17, 2018, her first instinct was to ask her parents, Mike Wiesenfeld and Zelda Freud, if they could start a Go Fund Me page to help Brunner cover his medical bills. Their initial target was $5,000.
As of this week, they have raised $26,337 from 198 donors, and recently raised the target to $45,000 because Brunner, a 46-year-old married father of two, can no longer afford his insurance plan. He is still in a wheelchair, in need of physical therapy and speech therapy, and his bills are piling up.
In addition to the Go Fund Me page, Wiesenfeld last month launched a tennis clothing line for kids called Beloot Clothing, and pledged 10 percent of her earnings to Brunner. She has already made $1,000. Eventually, if the company grows, Wiesenfeld said her family would like to employ Brunner as a salesman.
“Coach Juan is such a positive person who is always thinking about others, so I wanted to help him in whatever way I could,” said Wiesenfeld, a fifth-grader at The Mandelstam School in South Miami. “I was really sad when I heard he had a stroke. There was something missing in my life and out on the court.”
Brunner began coaching Wiesenfeld when she was 7 at the High Performance Tennis program at the Biltmore Tennis Center in Coral Gables. She immediately was impressed by his encouraging, enthusiastic style of coaching.
“I wasn’t very confident when I started playing tennis, but Coach Juan believed in me and kept telling me to go for anything I wanted to do,” Wiesenfeld said. “He helped me so much with my confidence, and he also is very funny and makes the sport fun.”
Brunner’s life has never been easy, but he manages to keep an upbeat attitude and be a positive role model for his sons Jordan, 13, and Jayden, 10.
Brunner was orphaned as a young child and grew up in foster homes in the Kissimmee area. He jokes that he picked up tennis by “doing the wrong thing at the right time.” He was roller skating on the courts and the tennis coach, Mike Purtz, ordered him off the courts. But then Purtz invited Brunner back for a clinic, and he fell in love with the sport.
He trained on public courts, attended Osceola High School and earned a scholarship to play at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. He studied business and hospitality management from 1992 to 1995 and was a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He also met his wife, Riika, a native of Finland, while in college.
In March, a TKE fraternity brother teamed with Brunner’s family and friends and surprised him with the “JuandellStrong Tennis Tournament” to help raise funds for his medical bills.
After college, Brunner played on the Challenger and Futures circuits, but decided to switch to coaching. He and his wife moved to Finland, where he coached and helped recruit European players for U.S. colleges. In 2009, he wrote and published a children’s book called “Beefy’s First Lesson,” about a young boy’s first tennis lessons.
“I wrote the book because I wanted to show my boys that if you put your mind towards anything, it can be achieved,” Brunner said. “I’m still trying to get it into stores.”
In 2013, the family moved back to South Florida. Brunner’s coaching career was going well, but he suffered a setback in 2017 when he got sick after being exposed to mold in his home, and then his career was put on hold after the stroke in October 2018.
“I recall waking up around 4 a.m. with this pain in my head,” Brunner said. “I told my wife that I didn’t feel well. She said that I should lay back down and not go to work, which I did. My wife had tennis practice that morning but for some reason decided not to go. I woke up later and felt a pain literally shoot through my head. I tried to move, but my right side wouldn’t work. I made effort from my left side to alert her. I panicked.”
Brunner’s wife was an emergency room nurse in Finland, so she immediately suspected he was having a stroke and called 911.
The past eight months have been brutal for Brunner and his family. He has been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Wiesenfelds.
“The $27,000 raised kept food on the table and a roof over my family’s head,” he said. “It also helped with my medical bills. It’s not every day you have someone go out of their way to raise money for you. I can’t thank them enough, and those who contributed, for helping us. We are blessed.”
Brunner said once he gets his life back in order, he plans to start a nonprofit foundation to help victims of stroke and mold illness.
In the meantime, Emma is determined to help her mentor.
“He was an amazing tennis coach and I’m so grateful I met him,” she said. “His way to bond with the kids on and off the court was truly special, and he gave me and many other kids a lot of confidence in ourselves. He helped me become the player I am today. I want to give back and be as generous as he was with us.”