Large amounts of people gather at Vineyards Community Park every Saturday in the fall and spring to watch Collier County boys and girls play soccer as part of the Optimist Soccer Club of Naples. SUBMITTED
Sports is one of the ties that bind a community.
You know this statement rings especially true in Collier County if you’ve ever driven down Vanderbilt Beach Road — just west of Interstate 75 — in the mid to late morning hours on a fall or spring Saturday. (Driving north on I-75’s Vanderbilt Beach Road overpass and looking to your right provides an even better view, though it’s much safer if you’re not the one doing the driving.)
Looking out on the large piece of land that is Vineyards Community Park (just next to Vineyards Elementary School), you can’t help but notice the sheer number of people sitting, standing, walking or running around and/or on the soccer fields that total somewhere around 20. (And many of those fields hold several games throughout the day.)
The Optimist Soccer Club of Naples, an organization run entirely by volunteers, is responsible for this soccer haven.
John Dina, the club’s president, talks with great pride about how Optimist Soccer has been giving kids —ranging in age from 3 to 17 — a place to kick the ball around since the organization was created in 1972. Just last week, he met an older gentleman who was watching his grandson’s game. The grandfather told Dina he played Optimist Soccer back in 1976.
Dina also serves as president for the Optimist Club’s travel soccer program, the Azzurri Storm, which is geared for the more competitive-minded kids. (They have to try out and make the team.) Dina says funds gathered by the Storm are also used to support Collier’s youth.
Of course, when the Optimist Club was created in the early ‘70s, Naples’ population was, well, smaller … and older. Nowadays, more younger families are living here. And despite the dramatic increase in registration and, therefore, revenue, Dina said the Optimist Club remains committed to making sure any kid who wants to play soccer can do so.
“We don’t send anybody away,” Dina stressed. “If you want to play and you have no means to play, we’ll find a way for you to play. We want to support every kid.
“A lot more families are moving into Naples, so that means more kids — as opposed to what it used to be. So our programs are growing every year.”
But soccer is just one facet — albeit a big one — of what Optimist Club does for Collier County youths. There are other programs and initiatives.
— The club awards $24,000 in scholarships to local high school seniors. There are five scholarships in all — $10,000 for first-place, $6,000 for second place, $4,000 for third place and $2,000 each for fourth and fifth place. Paid out over four years of college, Dina says the recipients must maintain an “attainable” grade point average to continue receiving the scholarship monies.
— A few years ago, the club made a commitment to donate $5,000 a year for local elementary schools to buy books for kids who couldn’t afford them.
— Last week, the club held a youth appreciation day, bringing three kids from every middle school in the county — 36 in all — to the Collier County Public School building to be recognized.
“Basically, whatever we can do to help kids in Collier County succeed, excel, become better individuals, be respectful of others, keep them out of trouble through sports or other activites, that’s what we do,” Dina said.
But soccer remains the centerpiece of Optimist Club. And it’s as strong as ever.
When the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, some soccer analysts on TV predicted it would have a catastrophic effect on youth soccer.
“I don’t believe that’s the case,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have failure. Do we give up every time we fail, or do we work harder? What we want to teach our kids — that’s OK to stumble and fall. Pick yourself up and go back and work hard again. And you know what? We may fail 10 times or a hundred times, but that one time when you get where you want to go, the reward at that point will outweigh any failure they’ve had all these years. You want to keep them pushing and you want to be positive.
“What we hear from our kids is, ‘You know what? They didn’t make it; we’re going to work harder to make sure we make it next time.’”
In other words, Collier County’s kids are optimists.
Email Gregg Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider.