WATSONVILLE >> On Saturday, law enforcement officers met with a group of teens for an indoor soccer match to benefit the Azteca Soccer Academy, a Santa Cruz-County nonprofit that used sport to intervene with at-risk youth.
Gina Castañeda, a probation officer with Santa Cruz County who worked with youth in trouble with the law, started the program eight years ago. In interviewing the teens, Castañeda said she found one common point: soccer.
"One of the things I was doing was asking them what they like to do for fun or passionate about," she said. "Eight responded that they loved to play soccer but at one point stopped playing soccer because they got involved in gangs."
Thus, the program began as a way to connect with the at-risk youth. One thing Castañeda was worried about was the fact that some of the teens in the program were from rival gangs.
A moment of truth for the program came during the first year. One of the players on the team, a gang member, was walking down a street when he noticed a group of rival gang members begin to form behind him. While the victim ran away unscathed, he recognized one person in the rival group as a teammate from the program.
He told Castañeda about the incident who in turn asked the player about it. It turned out the teammate told the others in the rival group to stop the chase.
"He goes when I see who it was, I stopped the guys and said, 'That's my teammate' and left him alone," she said.
"These young men see each other for people and not as enemies anymore," Castañeda said.
The program is comprised of players ages 14 to 20 and includes current gang members as well as reformed gang members.
"We have guys that fully changed and have guys that are in the first stages of making that decision and guys that are active (gang members) and trying to figure it out," she said.
Four years ago, the program began hosting a soccer match between the players in the program and probation officers and police officers. Proceeds from the event help defray the academy's costs, such as league fees and uniforms.
Jose Gonzalez said he was a troublemaker when he started in the program four years ago. But Gonzalez, now 19, is a mentor in training for the program and works with younger members.
"It feels good to help out the youth," Gonzalez said.
In the years since it began, the program has seen much success. This year, there are four high school graduates and two college graduates that are a part of the program.
Castañeda said she could not be more proud.
"In my whole time as a probation officer, aside from the Azteca program, I've only had two young men graduate from high school," she said. "To have this many kids that we've changed their lives and got them to graduate high school is amazing."
Play on Saturday showed how the program has paid off on the field, too.
In the second game against police officers from Watsonville, Santa Cruz and Fremont, the Azteca team scored three goals in the first 15 minutes of the game.
The team has grown from one indoor soccer team eight years before to two indoor teams and one outdoor team playing in various leagues.
Cpl. Fernando Lopez, an eight-year veteran of the Watsonville Police Department, sits on the board of directors for the program and said he's seen the change himself.
"There was one individual, we used to have a lot of contact with him and his attitude has changed in how he acts towards officers," Lopez said.