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.