The Santa Ynez Valley is a wonderful place for children to grow up. We have excellent schools, churches, nonprofits and sports organizations that help children develop from infants to high school graduates. They learn not only academic skills but important social and emotional skills, as well.
This wealth of youth opportunities did not happen by accident but by the vision, dedication, fundraising and just plain hard work of local community members.
As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and the Santa Ynez Valley has stepped up — in time, effort, vision and financial support from citizens who cannot be directly involved.
It would take a book to cover all the organizations that make our Valley such a great place to live.
In this article, I will focus on Youth Empowered, a nonprofit that uses weightlifting, wrestling, martial arts and self-defense to teach sport skills and fitness, as well as helps youths develop self-confidence, academic and artistic achievement, and social responsibility.
I first became aware of Youth Empowered from Pete Robbins, a member of Los Olivos Rotary Club who has been a sponsor of the organization. Pete arranged a tour of the club and an outside sit-down interview with the founders.
The facilities included weight training, wrestling, boxing and academic tutoring rooms, as well as outdoor space in which the equipment could be moved outside to accommodate classes during COVID-19 restrictions.
However, the most impressive thing was the philosophy of the club. Of course, developing athletic skills is important, but instead of it being the end goal, athletics is a medium to teach life and social skills. The motto of the club is, “In the gym, in the classroom, in the community.”
The club was started by Chantalle Castellanos, her husband, Omar Sandoval, who is the Santa Ynez Valley High School wrestling coach, and her mother, Lynne Castellanos. All three are instructors at the club.
Chantalle was raised in the Valley, attended Dunn School and competed in martial arts and boxing. After college, Chantalle worked for the Juvenile Parole Board of California, where she saw firsthand how important it is for youth to have positive activities and role models. She felt she could make a difference in at-risk youths’ lives.
Due to injury, she gave up her competitive career and married Omar, who she met at a mixed martial arts gym where they both trained. They eventually moved to the Santa Ynez Valley.
Meanwhile, her mom, Lynne, had taken up competitive powerlifting at age 50 and was an international success.
The three decided to open a club that not only emphasized competitive sport but a place to come, be safe, get academic tutoring and learn life skills. The club has been a tremendous success and today offers classes from preschool to adult in a wide variety of competitive, fitness and character-building activities.
Three-year-olds can learn to follow directions and teamwork while taking part in fun fitness activities and obstacle courses. Seniors can improve their cardiovascular, strength, flexibility and balance fitness in a socially supportive and fun atmosphere. Youth can not only participate in a wide variety of fitness and competitive activities but develop self-discipline, positive self-image, a sense of achievement and, most important of all, a sense of individual and social responsibility. In addition, the club offers academic tutoring as well as artistic and photography activities.
Youth Empowered is an outstanding example of what people with vision and commitment can do to make our Valley a better place. The three founders take no salary yet work countless hours to make the club a success.
They give scholarships to people who cannot afford the membership fee and turn no one away. The landlord, Virgil Elings, believes in the mission of the club so gives them a great deal on the rent. Many members of the club give back by helping to coach or tutor others. It is truly a family atmosphere.
If you want to learn more about Youth Empowered, know of someone who could benefit from the club or want to donate to support their important work, they are located at 320 Alisal Road, Suite 106, in Solvang. You can contact them at YouthEmpoweredSY@gmail.com, visit them on Facebook or mail them at P.O. Box 344, Solvang, CA 93464.
Now more than ever, we need to support organizations that are doing such great work to make our Valley the special place it is.