GOSHEN — Gina Castaneda says soccer saved her life. Now she uses that same sport to give back to her community.
Castaneda, a probation officer in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the founder of Los Aztecas soccer team, was the keynote speaker at the sixth annual Juvenile Summit in Goshen, which brings educators, law enforcement officers and other professionals who work with children together to discuss youth in the community and how to improve their lives.
This year's theme is "Think Outside the Box."
About 400 people registered for the event, Elkhart Juvenile Court Magistrate Deborah Domine said. Domine, who is in charge of organizing the event, also selected the speakers for this year's summit.
Other speakers in the event included Indiana Supreme Court Justice Loretta Rush, Department of Child Services director Mary Beth Bonaventura, and State Representative Rebecca Kubacki.
The three state officials presented resources and programs that can help professionals who work with students.
"I hope everybody enjoyed it," she said. "I hope everyone learned something and was inspired, and felt like what they do is important. That's my objective."
Domine said she first saw Castaneda's presentation in Santa Cruz and was impressed and inspired by what Castaneda went through and what she has worked on.
"She has a story that we can replicate, and she has insights that we all need to understand because she represented the kids we see day-to-day in the system and out of the system," Domine said.
Castaneda grew up in an atmosphere of violence. Her mother was a former gang member and had several abusive relationships. In school, Castaneda was bullied and called racial slurs. She was also homeless numerous times.
"My life was horrible," she said. "I was always angry."
Eventually, Castaneda got recruited for her high school's soccer team. Her passion for the sport helped her graduate from high school and go to college.
Castaneda was later recruited by a juvenile judge to become a deputy probation officer and started working with high-risk, gang-involved and high-needs youth.
The idea of starting a soccer team involving juveniles on detention as a youth program was not supported at first by the probation office. Castaneda went to local businesses and athletes asking for donations. She paid for some items with her own money.
Getting juveniles serving probation to play together as a team had its challenges, especially when some in the team were rival gang members.
After seeing the program's success, the probation office became involved. Since then, other probation officers, police and volunteers have helped Castaneda train the team.
"People ask me if I would change my childhood, and as difficult as it is to say I would not," said an emotional Castaneda. "I have a greater understanding of what our kids go through to survive. The pain that's inflicted on them, the hunger that they carry, the emotional and physical neglect that they live through every single day. It's made me who I am and I would not change that for anything."