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Meet Nelson Soriano: From Marine to running a youth recreation center

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After 11 years in the Marine Corps, Nelson Soriano is heading up a different kind of unit — one consisting largely of teenagers looking for a little after-school fun and diversion.

Soriano is the supervisor of Smith Recreation Center on Slater Avenue. He’s in charge of coming up with programs that will occupy the boys and girls who come through the center’s doors, and hopefully teach them some important life lessons along the way.

“This is definitely a community center where the community is very heavily involved,” Soriano said. “Everybody knows everybody here.”

Soriano, 38, was born and raised in New York City. He excelled in football, but was undecided on his plans for after high school.

One day, Soriano said, a good friend asked him about his plans.

“I said, ‘I’m going to your house,’ ” Soriano said. “He said, ‘No, I mean after high school.’ “

The friend said he was going into the Marines, and suggested Soriano do the same. It was only later that Soriano found out his friend signed up for the reserves, while Soriano went active duty.

Still, Soriano said, his years in the Marines were well spent.

“Getting to travel and see the world, small unit leadership, I enjoyed that,” he said. “I enjoyed accomplishing my mission.”

Soriano said his service included stints in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

After leaving the Marines, Soriano decided to stay near Fort Bragg, where he was based.

“When I got out of the military, I was a football coach, and I spent a lot of time at the rec centers,” Soriano said. “Kelley Boykins, a recreation supervisor at Westover, said, ‘Hey, you should work here.’ “

Soriano, who is married and has four sons ages 13 to 19, took her up on the offer. He’s been with Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks & Recreation Department for about three years, and at Smith Recreation Center for about a year and a half.

Soriano said Smith Recreation Center has a strong connection to the community. He pointed out framed pictures of former students who participated in programs there and went on to become professional athletes. Many still stay in touch, he said.

That connection means a lot to Soriano. He treasures the relationships he has developed with the young people who frequent the center.

He talked about one young man who was initially stand-offish toward him. “The other day, he came in here and brought me a lollipop,” Soriano said with a smile.

Beyond the fun and games the center offers, there is a serious purpose, Soriano said. He described the city’s youth centers as “listening posts” where adults can learn about the concerns of teenagers and the pitfalls they face.

To that end, Soriano said he is helping organize a teen summit consisting of students from E.E. Smith High School, Reid Ross Classical and Luther “Nick” Jeralds Middle School. The summit is planned for March 24.

“We’ll find out where their heads are, what their plans are,” Soriano said. “Once we get the conversation started, it will elevate to wherever it needs to go.”

Soriano said he hopes to be at Smith Recreation Center a long time. In considering his future, he references his military past.

“Everything is mission oriented to me,” he said. “Until God calls me to another mission, this is where I’ll be.”

Staff writer Rodger Mullen can be reached at [email protected] or 486-3561.

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© 2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.