A park once at the center of a dumping scheme is now a field of dreams for Brentwood soccer players.
The nonprofit Long Island Timberline Fútbol Club is the first and only sports group to play at Roberto Clemente Park since it reopened last year after being covered in nearly 40,000 tons of contaminated debris.
Juan Palacio, a former professional soccer player, said he launched the nonprofit to encourage area kids to exercise and “have a dream” while teaching them soccer skills and discipline. The program charges families whatever they can pay, which, in some cases, is nothing.
“For us, it’s been a point of pride because the people come and think they can go” professional, said Palacio, who played for several pro teams in his native Colombia. “You see the future with the little guys.”
Palacio, a Brentwood resident who coaches for the academy arm of the New York Cosmos, approached Islip Town officials about using the park during its grand opening in August 2017. The park was closed for three years because of illegal dumping discovered after a church group sought to refurbish the soccer fields there, officials said.
Five men, including two town parks officials, were convicted in the dumping scheme that also affected three other properties.
The soccer club, named for the park’s previous name of Timberline Park, launched in February with about 10 families paying what they can. In eight months, it has grown to 60 families, with kids ranging from ages 4 to 15.
“We start from nothing here,” said coach Nico Serolini of Central Islip, who used to play for a professional team in his native Uruguay. “You’re seeing grass now, but it was dirt. We started from scratch with a few players.”
The nonprofit, which has been a “dream” of the Palacio family, aims to be a place for kids to play and “a way out” of “everything going on in the streets,” Natalia Ramirez, Palacio’s wife and the nonprofit’s secretary, said.
The group plays year-round and often practices at Islip Town Hall West in the winter.
At a recent practice, kids smiled as they ran drills. Palacio gave instructions and encouragement in English and Spanish and was not afraid to let loose, including by stuffing a soccer ball under his shirt and hopping around as he told the little ones to run.
Lorena Chauta, a factory worker, said from the sidelines that the group is the only affordable soccer training she knows of for her 6-year-old son.
“He loves soccer and is always asking, ‘Mommy, mommy, can I play?’ ” the Brentwood mom said in Spanish, adding that she appreciates the group’s professional coaches.
There is a deficit in the group's finances, Palacio said. Its costs include $100 to the town to use the fields, about $1,200 for insurance and the price of paying referees to work at games.
The club relies on sponsorships and raffles to keep it going, Palacio said. The club uses goals and nets provided by the Cosmos and the town, he said.
“It could be considered symbolic” that the first sport organized at the park is soccer, given the fields’ role in the dumping, Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter said.
Seeing kids “running and smiling and laughing and shrieking” at recent practice during the grand reopening of the park's pool “was so affirming of all of our efforts we’ve put into” Clemente and other town parks, she said.
Carpenter said she expects other sports teams to use the park in the future.
The new soccer season starts Sept. 15.