Goshen News, Goshen, IN

March 20, 2014

Stories of triumph at annual summit on children

By SCOTT WEISSER scott.weisser@goshennews.com
Goshen News

---- — GOSHEN — Alex didn’t give up. He had people who were there to support him.

Alex urged his listeners Wednesday to be those kind of people.

Alex, a young man from Goshen, was one of several speakers during the sixth annual Community Summit on Children. The event was aimed at youth care workers and providers, educators, participants in the juvenile justice system, police and others who work to improve the lives of children. Around 400 people were expected to attend. The theme of this year’s summit, held at Maple City Chapel in Goshen, was “Thinking Outside the Box.”

Alex described a childhood far from idyllic.

“I remember being 4 years old and watching crack being cooked on the stove, learning the cues when my parents were high — the big pupils, the towel around the neck to deal with excessive sweat,” he said. Alex also recalled seeing his father throw his mother down a flight of 20 stairs.

For young Alex, there were troubles with authorities and time spent in foster care. He said he knew at a young age he wanted to be a success, but just didn’t have the guidance.

However, over the years there were adults — teachers, a court-appointed special advocate — who supported Alex. He eventually found the right home and started high school in a loving family environment. Alex graduated early and earned scholarships.

“All some kids ever need is someone to believe in them,” he said Wednesday. “Every one of us in this room has the opportunity to serve as a motivation for a child. ...A child needs to be aware that they have someone there for guidance, someone for support, and most importantly someone they can come to in failure.”

With help, Alex persevered. Another speaker Wednesday also knows a bit about overcoming long odds.

Soccer salvation

Gina Castaneda is a deputy probation officer in Santa Cruz County, Calif. As with Alex, her homelife as a child was lacking.

Gang affiliation, including by her mother, has been a recurring theme in Castaneda’s family. Growing up, she experienced physical and emotional abuse in her home. Ethnic slurs by other students awaited her at school. She also recounted becoming homeless as an 11-year-old.

“My life was horrible,” Castaneda said. “I was full of anger and full of fear.”

Castaneda also came to know gang culture. She pointed out that at-risk kids can fall prey to gang members who give them power, money and love. At some point, though, the at-risk youth will be asked to “put some work in.”

Castaneda credits the influence of certain educators along the way. She recalled the teacher who told her, “You are going to make it. I believe in you.” And she talked about how an educator got her involved in athletics.

“Soccer saved my life,” Castaneda said. She was a standout in the sport before being sidelined by a knee injury. However, soccer is still key to her life. These days, she uses it to show young people a better way.

Castaneda is founder of the Aztecas soccer team. It’s a group notable for its membership — juvenile probationers from rival gangs.

“These kids used to affiliate with gangs. Now they affiliate with each other,” Castaneda said. “They have grown to be friends. Their parents have grown to be friends.”

Castaneda said the Aztecas is about more than kicking a soccer ball around.

“It’s about connection,” she said. “...It’s about feeling like you’re successful and being part of a family.” She also indicated a similar program could be done in this area, whether it be through football, soccer, music, etc.

Castaneda, the first person in her family to graduate from high school, knows what it’s like to grow up in an atmosphere of pain and neglect. She said the experience made her who she is today, and she wouldn’t change it.

She also offered advice to the assembled at Maple City Chapel, those working with children who are much like Chastened used to be.

“Be patient,” she said. “Give them the opportunity.”

The final summit speaker, State Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, also talked about her formative years. The experiences she went through drive the legislation she champions today.

The migrant worker’s daughter was one of seven children, and Kubacki said failure wasn’t an option in her household.

“We grew up knowing it didn’t matter where you started out in life — it’s what you did with your life that’s important,” Kubacki said. The lawmaker also repeated her mother’s advice: You can either become a victim, or you can become a success.

Kubacki’s mother was a victim of domestic violence. And one of the bills Kubacki touted Wednesday is one that would fast-track divorce proceedings for victims of such abuse. Kubacki said the bill passed the House but didn’t get a hearing in the Senate. The lawmaker said she intends to reintroduce the bill.

Kubacki feels a responsibility to speak up for women and children. Referencing some of her fellow speakers Wednesday, she also sounded a note of hope.

“Alex, Gina...We can live through it,” she said.