Police officers squared off against children on the soccer field Sunday.
The Aztecas soccer team takes at-risk youth off the streets and on Sunday they challenged the law enforcement officers to play to raise money for summer camp.
“Sometimes when the teens that are at risk are dealing with officers it’s not a really good interaction,” said Santa Cruz police officer Saul Rodriguez. “Today we take our uniforms off and we are just soccer players.”
Rodriguez volunteers as a mentor for the Aztecas soccer team. He works with kids like Yoni Hernandez, who got swept up in the gang life when he was younger and was in danger of failing school.
“It’s been a good experience because it not only teaches me how to be a better player but I’ve been improving my school (work) and thanks to Aztecas, I got scholarships to pay my college,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said a probation officer had him sign up for the team five years ago and it changed his life. One year away from graduating from CSUMB, he is returning the favor.
“Most of the players, I see them in the streets and I talk to them. They are kind of part of the family,” Hernandez said.
He is one of many teenagers who serves as a mentor for younger kids at the Aztecas’ summer camp launched last year.
“We teach them not to do gangs, not get involved into drugs, alcohol or anything, just to focus on soccer and school,” Cesar Padilla said.
On Sunday, their parents cheered them on with pride.
“My son has learned discipline and respect,” said Carla Reza. “They taught him to look people in the eyes when he speaks to them.”
“I’m so happy,” said Martha Leyva. “My son plays really well and I hope he will keep going and playing better and better. Maybe someone will discover him and good things will happen to him.”
Sunday’s match raised $12,000 for the Aztecas’ summer camp.
This year there will be two camps in July because of the high demand last year.