By Raiza Giorgi
“One… slide your feet back and then come right back in and do another quick one, two, three….That gets you a quick jab, with no time for your opponent to react and then you get right back in and hit hard,” instructed Coach Raul-Omar Sandoval of Youth Empowered.
This was the first boxing class instruction for a group of young kids since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Youth Empowered owners Sandoval and his wife Chantalle Castellanos were so thrilled to be back giving instruction. The group of five kids whose ages ranged from 8 to 13, were all distanced apart on a mat with a boxing bag.
“I am so happy to be back working out and getting back in shape,” said Dallana Margarita, 10, of Solvang. “I love boxing and want to be a professional boxer one day.”
The tall fifth-grader is one of Youth Empowered’s strongest athletes as she has been training with them for three years and Castellanos is proud of her accomplishments and excited to get her into competitions someday.
“Dallana will be leading the other kids in group sessions; she has such a natural athletic ability,” Castellanos said. “I am excited to see where this can take her.”
Youth Empowered has built a reputation as a family-friendly facility that welcomes all ages to train in sports such as wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, self-defense, power lifting and mixed martial arts. As students grow in their skills, they have the chance to compete.
The gym also is home to Central Coast Wrestling Academy. Many wrestlers from Santa Ynez Union High School’s wrestling team are a part of the competitive wrestling club.
Youth Empowered has had had to get extremely creative in reopening and moving their instruction outdoors, which they are so grateful they have the opportunity to do it under shade trees and in the big breezeway at the old outlet mall in Solvang. The buildings are owned by Virgil Elings, and he has been a supporter of Youth Empowered and the other fitness groups, like the Gracie Barra Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu studio, who have also moved their operations outside.
“I have been coming here for two years and love how everyone can participate and they just make everyone feel so included,” said Kira Scheck, 13, of Solvang. “I love boxing because of the mental aspect and learning the combinations.”
She has been working out at home during the pandemic, but is happy to be back as she missed her friends and coaches. She also said she loves doing the workouts outside.
The gym typically offers a variety of fitness classes throughout the week for ages 3 to adult. Its youth program offers both recreational and competitive classes in boxing and wrestling. Castellanos’ mother Lynne Castellanos runs the Little Superheroes class for ages 3 to 6, where kids focus on learning teamwork and physical fitness at an age-appropriate level. At age 7, kids can participate in the Youth Fitness Boxing class, where skills for boxing and life are blended, often impacting even the most difficult children.
“We stopped doing classes two days before the ‘official’ lockdown and luckily we had just finished wrestling season the week before,” Castellanos said. “We have been constantly checking in with our kids to make sure they are OK, and I am so glad to reopen and see them in person and help them get through this.”
Sandoval added that he was so happy to be teaching again and giving his kids confidence and courage to help them get through as well.
“I am a pretty short guy and it took me years to get the courage to speak up for myself. That is what boxing has done for me, and I hope will do for my students,” he said. “Boxing isn’t about size, it’s about conviction and anyone can do this.”
Their son, Richie Sandoval, just graduated from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School with the CIF Southern Section 120-pound wrestling championship and a scholarship to attend Cal State Bakersfield.
“My son is the tallest man in the room, even though he’s only 5’2”,” Raul-Omar Sandoval said. “He has learned from a young age about confidence and how to speak up for himself that it took me years to learn and he will go far because of it.”
Besides athletic coaching, Youth Empowered also offers tutoring for students, self-care practices and community involvement.
“We need to get back the unity in community and that is where we help,” Castellanos said. “We want people of any background to be welcome here and learn how they can turn around and help others. Finding commonality, not furthering divisiveness is how that happens.
“Before COVID we had kids in here all afternoon not only working out but doing their homework,” she added. “The older kids would come and help the younger kids with various problems and even our adult weightlifters will routinely ask the kids how their projects are going or if they’ve finished their essays. This is about building strong bodies and minds.”
As they are continuing to reopen their operations and finding creative ways to offer services outside in small groups Sandoval and Castellanos will announce what they can do on their Facebook page, or you can reach Youth Empowered directly by email at YouthEmpoweredSY@gmail.com. They are located at 320 Alisal Road, Suite 106.