Santa Cruz County, California, probation officer Gina Castaneda’s success in uniting rival gang members from South Santa Cruz County into a championship indoor-soccer team is the subject of an eight-minute documentary that aired on ESPN and ABC.
The film, “The Save,” was one of six short documentaries shot for ESPN’s “HERoics” series, which highlighted the courage and barrier-breaking efforts of women as part of the network’s Women’s World Cup coverage. It was created by Oscar-nominated director Amanda Micheli.
“Soccer can make a difference in people’s life because it’s about connection; it’s not just about kicking a ball around,” Castaneda said in the film. “It’s about feeling like you’re successful, and being part of a family.”
The one-time soccer standout has won raves for her success in building the Aztecas and a second team, the Toltecas. Both teams are composed mainly of youth on probation and are coached by volunteer probation officers.
The film chronicles Castaneda’s poverty-riddled childhood growing up on a strawberry farm and the refuge she found as a star player on her high school soccer team. Her success on the field earned a scholarship to San Francisco State University.
“Soccer saved my life,” Castaneda said. “And now I teach soccer to give back what somebody gave to me.”
The Aztecas began as a vehicle for giving youth on Castenada’s probation caseload an opportunity to play team sports. It started as a voluntary program but grew into a formal one supported by the JDAI Model Site in Santa Cruz County and local businesses and residents.
“Gina is a survivor, and she has truly captured a way to use sports for social change,” Micheli said. “What fuels her passion for her work is that she believes in these kids. She knows what they are dealing with at home and on the streets.”
Gina is also featured in a 15-minute video for TED-Santa Cruz.