A Visit with Lynne and Chantalle Castellanos of Youth Empowered

                                                                              Chantalle, Lynne, and Max

                                                                              Chantalle, Lynne, and Max

You might not notice it if you didn’t know it was there, but tucked away on the ground floor of a modest building in Solvang is a place where magic happens. It’s called Youth Empowered, although co-founders Lynne Castellanos and her daughter Chantalle have not yet gotten around to putting up a sign.  It’s a nonprofit educational organization – a gym, classroom, and community center where kids can come, not just for athletic training, but also tutoring, friendship, and a sense of connection. It is, in essence, a place to be. In addition to Lynne and Chantalle, Omar Sandoval completes the team as a coach and instructor. Lynne is a well-loved teacher in the Valley, and Chantalle and Omar are both professional athletes in mixed martial arts.

“Athletics is the lure,” says Lynne. “We want them to be good people, and we want them to do their academic work, but if we have to trick them into coming here for boxing or wrestling, that’s great!”

The program evolved so gradually and intuitively, it’s difficult for Chantalle to pinpoint a starting date. The idea may have first taken root in college, when an assignment in a Criminal Justice class got her thinking about restorative justice and the sociology of gangs. She decided that she wanted to work with troubled kids or kids who were moving in the direction of trouble. It seemed to her that the primary impetus behind gang involvement was a need to connect and belong.

She later took a state job in Sacramento, whose rough south side neighborhoods were characterized by violence and gang activity.  “It’s a way to be a part of something,” Chantalle observes. “Especially in inner cities, parents are working, kids come home, and they’re on their own. They almost need the gangs as a safety net. If they go out and walk around, they’re in danger at times. So they join a gang and they have a protection, a family, not in a positive way, but they feel that connection.”

“But instead of the street, there could be places like this,” she says. “You can do it through sports, but there are other ways.  Our theory is that whatever you’re passionate about, you can find a child to share it with. Find a child and mentor them. Give them a boost. That’s what our world needs, and we don’t have enough of it.”

Obviously, the Santa Ynez Valley is not the inner city, and gangs are thankfully not a significant threat. But Chantalle observes other phenomena even here that are indicative of underlying deficiencies locally and in our culture as a whole. “I don’t see the kindness in kids that I saw around me when I was growing up,” she notes. “Kids seem hardened a little bit. They’re sarcastic. There’s no respect for one another or for adults. But how can we expect to see respect and kindness in kids if we don’t model it as adults? Even walking down the street, I surprise people by saying hello, not just tourists, but people I see every day. And it makes me sad that hello makes them jump a little bit. We’re supposed to say hello to one another! We’re supposed to connect. It’s crazy when you walk down the street and you have to dodge people because they’re all staring at their phones.”

Lynne, Chantalle, and Omar are out to create a different kind of culture at Youth Empowered. For starters, there’s the implicit code of respect that the framework of sports demands, where fair play, focus, and discipline are essential.  “Some of them step onto the mat thinking they are already so strong and so cool,” Lynne says, “and then they begin to realize that they don’t really know how to box, and there’s a grandma here who can do more push-ups than they can, or a seven-year-old girl, and there are grown men out there sweating…maybe even crying. It’s like everything can come out. Nobody laughs at you. It’s safe.  We’re all in it together here.”

Chantalle and Omar do boxing, kick-boxing, wrestling, and a variety of circuit and strength-training classes. Lynne leads fitness-boxing classes for kids, cardio-boxing classes for adults, women’s powerlifting, and a “Little Super-Heroes” workout for toddlers, complete with tiny capes. There’s also a once-a-week yoga class.

But the respect and caring of Youth Empowered goes beyond the mat.  Lynne’s specialty is tutoring and reading with students and helping them to develop better work habits.  She has high standards, and she holds kids accountable. “My friends were always terrified of my mom,” recalls Chantalle, “but they also loved her, because they knew her strictness was an expression of love.”

Sometimes it’s a matter of emptying a backpack and organizing its contents or pointing out more effective ways of keeping notes. “With some teen-agers, you have to stir them up a bit, or sort of push them off the track they’re on and help them find a different kind of balance,” Lynne says. “They need to be re-directed.”

Sometimes, though, they just need a quiet conversation, and at Youth Empowered no one is turned away.  “Now and then a kid will wander in and you just know they kinda need you,” says Chantalle, “and you become their therapist that day.”  

Whether there’s a specific issue to be resolved or just a longing for safe haven, this kind of personal responsiveness demands an ability to improvise. “We deal with things day-by-day,” says Chantalle. “It’s hard to think about long-term goals. The nature of our program is that we’re always evolving, and we’ll always be in progress.”

Money is tight. Funding for Youth Empowered has been a patchwork quilt of membership dues, donations, and small grants. “We cover our expenses,” says Chantalle, “and not a whole lot more, but we don’t want to grow too fast anyway.” There are about twenty-five or thirty family memberships at this point, and a number of individual adult and child memberships. No one is turned away for being unable to pay. Lynne and Chantalle acknowledge they will need to find additional resources in order to sustain the program for the long run, but right now they’re too busy running it to focus on fundraising and pursue grants. 

Somehow it’s staying afloat, and there have been huge individual successes. Struggling math students have been steadily improving test scores under Lynne’s guidance, and Omar has stepped in to fill a need for impromptu Spanish lessons. High school students walk into the gym not just to work out, but to sit on the couch and do homework together. Children engage in simple service projects, such as making cards and Christmas bags, and gain a deeper sense of connection to community. Teenaged girls are acquiring new confidence in their real strength and capabilities, along with a better sense of how to dress appropriately. (Hint: teeny tiny shorts do not make wrestling easier.) A former student named Kyleigh, now attending Hancock, assists in the gym and with tutoring, and is helping to set up a reading corner and book club for junior high and high school girls. Another participant, a man in his sixties, has established friendships with younger workers that he had previously seen on the job but never known as people.  “We never had any generational connection,” he says, “And now they’re my boxing buddies.”

A family atmosphere prevails. The team’s personal dedication and passion drive the program, and it becomes more than the sum of its parts. “It’s a good model,” Chantalle says, “but there’s an element of magic to it that comes from sharing what we love. And we can all try to figure out what we can do in our lives to create and share that kind of magic, whatever form it takes. We have to reach out to every child. We have to share.”

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AuthorCyn Carbone

Improving the World, Little by Little, Through Soccer and Love

At 28, Kelsey Sullivan is fearless and determined, but she always has a twinkle in her eye.  After graduating from Dunn School in Los Olivos, she went to Ghana as a volunteer for the Right To Dream Academy, a residential international school that offers scholarships to talented young soccer players drawn from all over West Africa. There she met eleven boys from Sierra Leone who had been sponsored by the then fledgling Craig Bellamy Foundation (CBF), started by Welsh soccer player Craig Bellamy who, after seeing the devastating conditions in which these kids grow up, resolved to educate them through their love of the sport. "Something about those Sierra Leoneans resonated with me," Kelsey recalls. "They're honest, direct, and a little bit cheeky. I'm like that too. I was just drawn to the kind of energy they have." Today, she is the primary sponsor, advocate, and den mother to fourteen young men from Sierra Leone who are living, playing soccer, and attending high school in the Santa Barbara area. It's been quite an adventure.

A versatile athlete who has played soccer, run track, boxed, danced, and, as a child in Wyoming, was a dog sledding champion, Kelsey's talent and temperament were a good fit for the program. She came home briefly after her volunteer stint, worked in a bakery in Solvang, and thought about things. She knows there are kids in need everywhere, but you might as well start somewhere, and she knew she had an affinity for the people of Sierra Leone...and soccer. When she learned that CBF needed an English teacher and wanted to start a girls' league, she went to Sierra Leone. Jumping in and figuring it out as she goes is her characteristic strategy, and it seems to work for her. She has a sunny, optimistic nature, but she is also hard-working, persistent, and resourceful. 

“We look at maybe 4,000 kids, and ultimately whittle it down to sixteen,” says Kelsey. “For the kids who are chosen, it’s huge. They get to live in a dorm with three meals a day, running water, electricity, and the only grass field in the country except for the national stadium. But it’s not just athletics. Education is a big part. We give them five-year scholarships and we see how they progress. After a couple of years we start to see who our stand-out leaders are and who has really strong character, and they might be chosen to come here to California.”

“When we went to recruit, we learned that there was no formal league in Sierra Leone where we could find these boys, so we started a Youth Soccer League with help from UNICEF, and now we have a girls’ league as well. And there’s more involved than the games. We have a point system that takes into account wins and losses; fair play; community projects, and school attendance. If you win games, you still have to go to school.”

Dunn School, Kelsey’s alma mater, has been especially receptive to the CBF boys who make it to California. Seven will be starting this year, and Dunn's first CBF graduate, Sahid, will be attending college at Loyola Marymount. There are also two boys at Cate this year, and two at Laguna Blanca.  The students have full scholarships, funded through a mix of endowment funds and private donations. They play club soccer, which sometimes leads to interest from colleges. “Hopefully some will play pro, and some will get degrees, and we’ll see where it goes,” says Kelsey. In 2020, when this current group graduates, she plans to move back to Sierra Leone and open up a girls’ version of the program.

The Cate boys are boarders and the rest of them live with Kelsey in a house that she bought–it’s simply what she chose to do with money she inherited. “I’m the only adult, just me and the boys, and I had to create this part. Some people think it must be strange, or challenging, but actually it feels good. I am working with kids who know how lucky they are to be here, and they are appreciative.  The first year, we only had one boy, Sahid, the one who is going to LMU this fall, and it was just the two of us in the house. I was twenty-four, and he was fourteen. How would this all work? Neither one of us really knew, but it was interesting for us to navigate. To this day, I still have these hours-long conversations with Sahid. He’s been good about explaining a lot of the cultural things. He’s taken on that role. We teach each other.”

“There are always little things…like one boy went to take a shower, and after he’d been gone for forty-five minutes, it turned out he didn’t know how to turn it on. Or how do you use a microwave? Another boy had just arrived, and on his second night, all the smoke alarms went off…we had cooked chicken, but it was Ramadan, and he had been fasting, so he was trying to re-fry the chicken at four in the morning, but he didn’t know how to do it. The house was filled with smoke.”

“Honesty is what works for us. We’re all gonna make mistakes, but we just talk about it. It’s the same for me learning things culturally. Being a woman taking charge—I know that’s been an interesting change for a lot of the boys. But they make fun of me too. They call me Chelsea when I get mad. ‘Oh, Chelsea’s out.’ And as a group, it turns out we’re the most competitive people in the world. A card game, whatever, everyone wants to make a bet, everyone wants to win. It’s always a competition. And that’s fun too. I like that. I thrive on it. I’m in.”

“I never get tired of watching them play. Someone is always training, every night, and I sit and watch. They’re so great to watch! Their personalities come through. You can see this is totally their space. They’re having fun. And that’s my Zen time, just sitting there and watching them practice.” 

“This year we have three Christian boys and the others are Muslim. We figure God is God, whether it’s a mosque or a church or a house.  We pray before dinner together. We share.  One boy, Musa, was in class last year and a classmate was repeating what he’d heard on the news or whatever about Muslims being really violent and things like that, and Musa said, ‘I’m Muslim. I’m not like that.’ And for that kid, it was eye opening. They have this safe space to interact, articulate thoughts and share with honesty. Everyone comes away with a better understanding.”

Kelsey goes back to Sierra Leone each year to get the boys, and when she talks about the place and its people, her love is palpable. “It’s actually hard to come back here afterwards,” she says. “Whenever I go there, I feel refreshed, simplified, clear-headed. All the things we worry about, you can’t worry about there. It’s just basic needs. To get something done, for example, takes twice as long, maybe three times as long, as you would expect. They call it African time. So what you can accomplish here in maybe two hours can take three days there. But what’s the hurry anyway? So it takes a long time to do things, but then you’re more relaxed and clear. Then I come back here, and everyone is rushing around. And I take the boys to Costco. You want cereal? There are like 700 choices. It’s overload.”

“Traveling can be hard. They question me when we travel, so I take the guardian papers everywhere we go. The visa process is a monster task every time. You never know what makes a difference or when someone is going to be denied and why. It doesn’t get any easier.”

“Eventually you’re there, and as soon as you leave the airport, there’s all this poverty, right in your face. But the place is honest, it’s raw, it’s colorful, and it’s friendly. I like talking to people. Everything is a story. I love that part of it. And there’s always an adventure with every single thing you do. Something always happens.”

“You wouldn’t think that in the face of so much poverty and sadness, you would find the kind of hope that the people there have. One of the fathers sells newspapers in Freetown. He’s the happiest, nicest man I’ve ever met. He works so hard, he has so little, but he’s so happy and grateful for life. You see a guy like that and think, ‘What have I got to be unhappy about?’ Maybe I’m missing the point. So I feel refreshed. It gives me hope.” 

Kelsey seems uniquely qualified for the mission she’s undertaken. All her strength and spirit and distinctive Kelsey-ness has been channeled into it. She is also quick to acknowledge teachers, family members, friends, and others who have helped her along the way and are there for her still. She is refreshingly modest, never claims to be an expert, and laughingly admits when she's puzzled. She doesn't much like to be in the spotlight, but she agreed to do this interview because she is proud of the boys and wants their stories shared. You can learn more about the Craig Bellamy Foundation on their website: craigbellamyfoundation.org

If you find what breaks your heart, then you find your passion," Kelsey says. "I read that someplace, and it’s true for me. We have so much, so many opportunities. How can we share? What would bring communities and cultures together? That would help the world so much. The dialog, the learning experience, even just to have a real conversation, so much learning can happen! For me, it breaks my heart when you can’t do that. So how can I bring these things together? I found my exact purpose. This is what I was supposed to do, and I just keep plugging away. It will fall into place. The good things will come.”