Credit: Kenia Torres

While the world’s greatest display their talents in Brazil this summer, the would-be Messis and Neymars of Santa Ana are taking their shots on one of the city’s most popular attractions — a high-quality synthetic pitch at Willard Intermediate School.

The soccer field is the crown jewel of a new park complex at Willard that is, by all accounts a hit. On some nights, a crowd lines up to play soccer.

“Willard is a highly desirable field to play on,” according to Gerardo Mouet, executive director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Agency. “Everyone wants to use it.”

It is the latest example of the city’s long-term vision to create more park space despite a lack of open areas in which to build new parks.

According to Mouet, the $4.4 million state grant that financed the new facilities was awarded on the premise that the park would serve the immediate neighborhood.

Before receiving the grant, city officials identified the Willard area as most in need of open park space and did research to find out what features residents wanted. The next step was working out shared jurisdiction over the park, to be used jointly by the Santa Ana Unified School District and the city.

Joint use is complicated to arrange but expands neighborhood access to school fields and playgrounds, which traditionally are closed on the weekends and evenings.

And along with the increased access — not to mention the popularity of the soccer fields — comes a quandary: how to make sure that one of Santa Ana’s most densely populated low-income areas are the park’s primary beneficiaries.

“The park should have maximum benefit to the neighborhood and community,” Mouet said.

His challenge is to balance the needs and desires of youth soccer leagues from all across the city with the preservation of access for neighborhood families. To that end, Mouet is hoping to create a policy that gives preference to soccer leagues that can prove they serve a higher proportion of Willard youth, roughly defined as players who walk to their games at the park.

The proposed new policy on soccer field access is not yet a done deal and will be discussed next on July 28 by the Parks, Recreation, Education and Youth Council Committee. Mouet anticipates that some of the eight youth soccer organizations currently eligible to use the Willard field will weigh in against the proposal to favor teams with Willard players.

Meanwhile, Mouet has set aside 18 neighborhood hours weekly for the new facilities during the summer. Area residents have been known to line up to take the field and use other facilities during the neighborhood hours.

Coming Together to Play

In addition to soccer enthusiasts, many neighborhood mothers walk to the new playground with their children, and senior citizens make use of the rubber track surrounding the soccer field. The basketball courts are now open for the public, so teenagers no longer have to jump over the old wire fence.

Esmeralda Moreno, a seventh grade student of Willard Intermediate School, lives in the apartment complex close to school and she regularly brings her little brother Aydeen Moreno. She grew up in the neighborhood and remembers how hard it was to find a place to play.

“We used to play in the streets every day because we couldn’t play in the hallways of the apartments or skate outside of the apartment,” Esmeralda said. “We really couldn’t do anything. With the new park, you don’t really see anyone playing in the streets anymore.”

Before the new facilities opened to the public in early 2013, many families walked to the nearest park known as Angels Community Park. The park is a mile away, so it was a bit of a long walk for some families.

Antoinette Muñoz, a mother of two, couldn’t walk to Angels park due to an ankle injury. Before Willard facilities opened, she had to take her son to the closest Burger King so he could play in the jungle gym.

“We are very blessed to have this park. Many of these kids live in apartments, so they don’t have a backyard,” Muñoz said. “We needed a place to be able to teach our children how to ride bikes or how to play any sport. Our community needed this and we are so happy we have it now.”

Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at

Kenia Torres is a part of Voice of OC’s youth media program and a UC Irvine student majoring in Literary Journalism. She grew up in Santa Ana.

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