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First Person: A Life's Trajectory Changed By A Grand Prize Win

Jackie Robinson Family YMCA executive director Michael Brunker in an undated photo.
Jackie Robinson Family YMCA
Jackie Robinson Family YMCA executive director Michael Brunker in an undated photo.
First Person: A Life's Trajectory Changed By A Grand Prize Win
First Person: First Person: Shaping Youth In Southeast San Diego GUEST: Michael Brunker, executive director, Jackie Robinson Family YMCA

When I turned 11 years old, my mother into the contest and so would happen is the jury Coleman of the Detroit tigers pulled my mother's postcard out of a barrel on my 11th birthday and she won two cars. So I'm looking at a Dodge dart in the Plymouth Fury. I'm thinking I might drive one of those cars when they. But what my father did as he took both cars and put it on the corner of the gas station and he sold them both so he could buy his first home. That really changed my life. We moved into an area where I changed schools in sixth grade. It with an environment where kids are going to college. They just have that mindset but had that postcard not been pulled out not taken the time to try to enter the contest, where would our lives be today? I think about that many times.My name is Michael Brunker the executive director of the Jackie Robinson family YMCA. Very few people complain about what we didn't have and all you need to do is walk into any of the YMCA sissy there is very outstanding facility so from a physical presence, you can see the structure of the buildings, equipment that was inside in the spaces that were needed. We did not have that but then this one wasn't built like the others. So having served that area it started on cinderblocks. Even so everything were getting was not equal to the others. We would get the hand-me-down equipment and there was one point where the Chargers gave us their used treadmills. So when I started in 1997 the branch budget was 450,000. We shut down the building it was over $4 million operation. So more people were coming to what we had. I have from Detroit originally and came here in 1980 to coach basketball in Senegal state. I'm well aware that many of the things that play Detroit exist in southeastern San Diego it could be crime, gangs, educational disparities, employment, housing and all of the above and it's pretty much saturated in that area. After working there for 20 years we know that the community that we serve is in need of several things and probably the most is the influence of the family. My father had worked for the global brewing company. I will never forget the time when my father while working as a brewmaster and then all of a sudden they went bankrupt and sold the name and laid off 3500 people. My father at the age of 40 was now working at gas stations and carwashes in the factories and doing all kinds of things to try to make ends meet. What we do is my mother would make his dinner. We would get in the car and drive to where he was working to bring his dinner to him so he would have some kind of connectivity to him. It impacted our family in a huge way so the father that was around all the time when I was growing up was no longer around. Sports was a big part of my life growing up in Detroit and then in college I was able to go to the University of Detroit. My father had undergone that she was all we -- he was already -- assisted they had a job or an there was a postcard and said they were looking for a custodian and for me it looked like the perfect job because I could work and study and do the same thing. My duties at the school were to sweep the floors and open the doors and make sure they were locked and turn off the lights and make sure the building was locked down. One Sunday at a set up for a basketball game in the team that was playing was a seventh and eighth grade team that the year before they did not win any games. So everybody knew I played basketball because in between studying I would always sneak into the gym and have fun with the kids. So at the first game that I set up, they were losing at halftime and the coach wanted to know if I could come in and offer some pointers so by halftime I was helping to coach that team and we went on to win that league championship which was a complete turnaround. Coming to San Diego and having coach at San Diego State for seven years but prior to that I coached in Detroit. I became involved with coaching but when I came here I just was attracted to the community similar to those I was grown up in. Southeastern San Diego Logan Heights in all those areas that we serve our great communities. But they get categorized by some of the things that you read in the media. Yes there are family survive violent loss because of those pilot acts that happened in southeastern Senegal but this also kids going to college and kids going to Stanford and Harvard and there's young people that are growing up and becoming principals at schools. She's on the principle of Bell middle school. There's examples of greatness in the community and I think that's what were doing right now is moving the needle and changing the narrative in trying to engage with young people where they're at. You can talk about who they are what they're doing but how we support them to programs like the YMCA and other facilities and people who deal with kids and families and try to develop character and the young people.Jackie Robinson family YMCA executive director Michael Brunker reopen the facility last month. That first-person preacher was produced by Michael Lipkin.

KPBS Midday Edition's First Person series tells the stories of average and not-so-average San Diegans in their own words. Their experiences, both universal and deeply personal, offer a unique lens into the news of the day.

Michael Brunker thinks back to his 11th birthday a lot. It was 1963 and Brunker lived with his parents in Detroit. Ernie Harwell, the Detroit Tigers' announcer, was officiating a raffle with a classic Motor City grand prize: his-and-hers cars, a Dodge Dart and Plymouth Fury.

Harwell picked Brunker’s mother’s postcard, leaving the 11-year-old Brunker dreaming of what might happen in just a few years.


“I’m thinking, I might drive one of those cars one day,” Brunker said.

But those dreams were soon dashed. Brunker’s father put the cars up for sale and used the money to put a down payment on a new home in a better neighborhood. Brunker changed schools and said the move changed his life, putting him on a trajectory to eventually coach basketball for the Detroit Pistons and San Diego State University.

“I often wonder, had that postcard been pulled out, had my mother not won those two cars, had she not taken the time to enter the contest, where would our lives be today?” he said. “I often think about that. Many times.”

Brunker is now executive director of the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA, where he’s been for the past 20 years. He recently oversaw a $28 million renovation, significantly updating the building and its equipment.

As part of our First Person series, Brunker shares his story.

Corrected: October 5, 2021 at 11:11 AM PDT
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