WATSONVILLE—More than 100 children in bright yellow T-shirts were at Pinto Lake County Park Friday morning, laughing, shouting and running through various soccer drills as part of the Aztecas Summer Soccer Camp.
The camp, launched seven years ago to give young people a constructive “pro-social” summertime activity, was back after being shelved last year due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“It’s a great event,” said Robert Doty, who directs the Santa Cruz County juvenile probation division. “It’s an opportunity for South County youth to be around other youth, make friends and also develop their soccer skills.”
Samantha Alvarado, 8, said she came from her home in Hollister to join the fun.
“I like this camp because I like to make friends and it’s easy to make friends here,” she said. “The coaches are good, too; they know how to help us learn more about soccer.”
Doty said that the event was particularly significant because last year’s camp was canceled.
“Kids have been in this isolation for a year,” he said. “We have to think about what we are doing to help draw them out of it.”
Program founder and juvenile probation officer Gina Castañeda agreed.
“I, as a probation officer, have seen what Covid has done to families,” she said. “They have lost family members, people were depressed, we had suicidal kids, the isolation, the depression, families losing their jobs. Kids are really struggling and suffering. To have them out here and seeing the smiles on their faces and laughing and being kids has been amazing to see. I am exhausted, but when I see that it makes it worthwhile.”
The Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy runs the camp. That program was created with the philosophy that keeping young people engaged in activities such as sports and offering academic support keeps them out of trouble and in school.
Aztecas, which for the rest of the year operates as a soccer team, provides youth trainers who help coach their younger peers for the two-week summer camp.
Jesus Flores, 18, a recent Watsonville High School graduate, said he was happy to spend a chunk of his summer helping at the soccer camp. He said that he has been involved with the camp for about four years.
“It feels good to be able to give these kids something valuable to do and to help get them off the streets,” he said. “It’s a way of helping our community. They take it seriously and that means a lot to me. Today we’re working on shooting, passing, counter-attack and things like that.”
The camp received a $20,000 donation from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses its efforts on at-risk and low-income young people throughout the U.S. The organization has been a long-term partner with Santa Cruz County Probation Department’s juvenile justice division
The Freedom Lions Club sponsors Aztecas summer camps each year. Lions Club volunteers help with sign-ups, registrations, setting up the camp, snacks and lunch, donating over 90 hours of volunteer time each week. At the end of each weekly camp, they hold a barbecue for all the participants and their families.
For information about the summer soccer camps or the Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy, visit aztecasyouthsocceracademy.org or call 763-8121.