A Visit with Lynne and Chantalle Castellanos of Youth Empowered
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.”