BRIGHTON PARK — Three times in the past six years, the soccer team at Thomas Kelly High School has captured the city's championship despite never playing a home game or practicing at the nearby flood-prone public park.
“We never practice here. We don’t want to risk any injuries,” said longtime coach Stan Mietus. “I don’t see how the [city’s] second-largest high school is not helped. I don’t know why people don’t want to help the kids. It’s sad.”
The cost to overhaul the 7-acre field at Kelly Park was estimated at $3.4 million. The park sits across the street from the high school at 4136 S. California Ave. and is one of the few public recreation spaces in one of the city’s most "park-poor" neighborhoods.
For the past several years, Kelly's varsity soccer squad has practiced at McKinley Park and traveled four miles to Marquette Park for its so-called home games, with bus fees and field rentals eating away at the school’s athletics budget, Mietus said.
The school stopped hosting matches at McKinley Park after the team was approached in the middle of a match by a gunman last fall.
Despite the setbacks, the team has captured the crown in the city Public League Championship three times since 2007, an accomplishment noted in a recent resolution authored by 7th District Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
In the resolution, Garcia noted that Kelly's October 2012 championship was especially notable because of the “substantial disrepair” of the team’s practice field.
“We put that in there intentionally because we’re working with them on their effort to get the park renovated," Garcia said. "We’ve been trying to a least make some noise for them, open some doors and the lines of communication.”
But so far, there's been lots of talk about improvements but little funding, community groups and school leaders said.
In order for the Chicago Park District to consider overhauling the field, groups requesting the renovations must raise roughly two-thirds of the cost, through a mix of private donations and funding from state and local officials. The Park District would then chip in the rest.
That means such groups as the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council are left trying to drum up interest in the low-income neighborhood. Already, they've hosted two packed-house town halls and a 5K race that raised nearly $7,000.
Garcia was among the runners that day. He said it’s “symbolic that the community bootstrapped the effort."
“Just like the community can come forth and raise $5,000, somebody could come along and pop for $5 million," he said.
Kelly Park Advisory Council President Sarah Reschly said the problem is a double-whammy: There’s no cash and little help from elected officials.
“Brighton Park is not a part of the city people pay attention to or care about. If we were along the lake, we’d have a new park,” she said.
Mietus, the soccer team's head coach, said he envisions a safe, sprawling turf field with families and faculty packing the grandstand, something to boost school pride and encourage more participation in sports. But he thinks it’s a long shot.
“We tell the kids to appreciate what they have," he said. "But why can’t we have more?”