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Wishes Granted, Lives Changed by a USPTA Pro Through 20 Years of Fundraising

by Tommy Cardinal, USPTA Communications

She’s been a USPTA professional since 1989 but has been a part of something bigger since 1998.

A personal struggle coupled with a USPTA initiative motivated Brenda Mertz to start a Lessons for Life fundraiser in the Sarasota, Fla. area.

“In 1998, when the USPTA asked us to give away one of our lessons’ monies to the American Cancer Society and they were gonna help a national charity, that year I happened to get cancer,” Mertz said. “I thought, ‘You know what? I can really go big with this. I can really help.’”

Mertz, a USPTA Elite Professional, has done just that since then. She’s held a Lessons for Life event 20 years in a row. The 20th Annual Lessons for Life fundraiser was held on January 12 at the Venetian River Club in Venice, Fla.

Lessons for Life is a USPTA national charitable program. The goal of the program is to encourage members to organize tennis-based fundraising events to benefit people and organizations in their community.

Mertz’s 20th annual Lessons for Life event included food, a kids’ zone, silent auction and lessons for kids. Mertz said the silent auction had a big impact in fundraising. The recipient of the fundraiser changes year to year.

This year the fundraiser benefited Make-A-Wish Southern Florida. Mertz said she wanted to help different organizations and individuals through the fundraiser rather than the same year in and year out. Their fundraising goal was shattered.

“I wanted to be just one penny over $25,000,” Mertz said. “Midnight Saturday night I looked on the internet and we had gotten, at that point, $35,000. That touched me big time, my heart. We had picked three children from Make-A-Wish and they were there. They’re gonna get their wish for sure and the rest is going to go into Make-A-Wish for the next child.”

Nicole Ruth, the development coordinator at Make-A-Wish Southern Florida, said that the success of Mertz’s final Lessons for Life event will ensure that 3-year-old Alison, from Venice, Fla., can meet the Disney princesses at Disney World for her fourth birthday; 15-year-old Aundrianna (or Aunna), from Sarasota, Fla., can go surfing in Australia; and 12-year-old Javier, from Punta Gorda, Fla., can go on a Caribbean cruise with his family. Ruth said the event raised more than $35,000.

“There were several people that donated $1,000 to the event,” Charles Sandomenico, director of tennis and fitness at the Venetian, said. “Some of them didn’t even play tennis or come.”

Sandomenico has attended the fundraisers for the past 13 years and hosted it the past two years. He said that about 150 people attended the fundraiser.

“Since I started working here, we’ve always gone to each one every year,” Sandomenico said. “All the pros in Venice and Sarasota and Bradenton all participate when we can.”

Dave Kozlowski said he has known Mertz for almost 30 years. Kozlowski, or “the Koz”, is a USPTA Master Professional and has attended Lessons for Life Events for the last six years.

“Sometime after I met her, she got into fundraising with Lessons for Life and really took an absolute, personal hold of it,” Koz said. “This was hers, and everybody respected her for that because it was hers and the way she had gotten involved.”

Lessons for Life events organized by Mertz have experienced tremendous growth in 20 years. In 1998, the first year it was organized, the fundraiser raised $1,200.

“The first year we made $1,200 and that was phenomenal with the few pros we had,” Mertz said. “We were thrilled. I never dreamed that it would get to $35,000.”

Giving back to the individuals in the community has motivated some of those beneficiaries to give back themselves. One previous recipient of a Lessons for Life fundraiser in 2007, Olivia Theiler, has returned to Lessons for Life to lend a hand herself. She’s come back every year since to lend a hand.

“She had leukemia and she’s fine now. So, every year she’ll come with her family,” Mertz said. “They went every year and helped us set up, support and we would introduce her. Now she’s taller than me and drives. We are always so happy to see her because we just saw her grow up.”

This was Mertz’s final year coordinating a Lessons for Life fundraiser but said she hopes that the event motivates attendees to give back in other ways in future years. After 20 years of organizing a fundraiser each year, Mertz said she wants to start focusing her time on becoming a USPTA Master Professional and mentoring youth.

Mertz and her husband James Mertz started Mertz Tennis Academy to teach children in the Sarasota area on different courts. They utilize facilities throughout town including Pine View School, Calusa Lakes and NewGate School. They also organize shuttles for children and adults to attend the Miami Open tournament annually. Mertz has used her USPTA membership and resources as a tool to help the community that she lives in.

“I feel through the core of USPTA it’s given all of us pros a chance not to just teach tennis but to give back to our communities through tennis,” Mertz said. “That’s been pretty big to me.”*
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