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Rob Castenada, center, has been working with kids since 2000.

His goal is to let kids be kids – and have an alternative to gangs

by Di Dinnis
March 12, 2013


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Michel Tilapa coaches a game at Beyond the Ball.


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Kids disperse after a game with Beyond the Ball.


Rob Castaneda


Gary Elementary School before Beyond the Ball transformed the campus.


Rob Castaneda


Gary Elementary School after Beyond the Ball transformed the campus.

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8th graders at Locke Elementary School talk about basketball and how it influences their life.

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Cesar Aguilar tells other kids if they don't feel love at home they should come to Beyond the Ball.

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Michel Tilapa talks about his experience with gang violence in Little Village.

Related Links

Beyond the BallChicago - Positive Coaching Alliance3point AthleticsYou hear about youth obesity, but here's a story about youth intensity

Off the court lessons in basketball

• Discipline
• Perseverance
• Sense of pride

• Self respect

• Self confidence
• Merits of handwork
• Dedication

• Punctuality
• Working with others
• Dealing with adversity
• Bouncing back from mistakes

Chicago organization provides resources to coaches.

Seventy percent of kids drop out of sports by the age of 13. That concerns Jason Sacks, executive director for the Chicago Positive Coaching Alliance.

“Sports provide endless opportunities for teachable moments,” Sacks said.

Besides throwing a ball or shooting a basketball, he says one can learn life skills such as working with others, dealing with adversity and bouncing back from mistakes.

He believes these lessons will last longer than sports skills.

“Sports is basically a virtual classroom and a lot of times kids are much more engaged when they're playing sports than when they would be sitting in a classroom.”

Sacks wants to make sure coaches realize the opportunity they have to shape kids' lives.

The Positive Coaching Alliance is a national non-profit that partners with schools and youth sporting organizations. They organize trainings for coaches and parents with a mission to “develop better athletes, better people, transform the culture in youth and high school sports, so all kids have a positive experience.” They have a local division in Chicago.

They do work all over the city, including East Garfield Park and Little Village.

“A lot of times in these neighborhoods sports can be the only outlet there for kids besides getting in trouble,” Sacks said.

He says kids from these neighborhoods might not always have positive role models.

“These coaches become individuals that are around these kids 24/7, and they're really serving as more than a coach.”

They train coaches through online and live interactive workshops. According to Sacks, all of their content comes from sports psychology and research, and must go through the national advisory board first. Among the board members are Joe Ehrmann, founder of Coach for America, Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics head coach and Carol Dweck of the Stanford University department of psychology. Phil Jackson is the national spokesman.

Sacks says coaches serve as role models. Kids mimic actions of the coaches. Even sideline behavior.

“If a coach is going nuts when the ref makes a call and yelling at the ref, he's setting the scene that this is OK,” Sacks said.

Sacks, a former high school athlete and coach himself, realizes that coaches are in an important position and that’s why he works for PCA. He wants to make sure coaches feel that they're equipped to be successful as a coach, mentor and role model.
In 2010 Rob Castaneda made a choice. He owned a successful electrical company but his heart was with kids in Little Village.

“What do I really want to do? Do I want to grow a company or continue to work with youth in the community,” Castaneda said he asked himself.

At that point he was working with 250 kids in the neighborhood with his organization Beyond the Ball and running a company. He didn’t feel like he was doing either really well.

He chose the kids. But this wasn’t the first time he had to make a tough decision.

Ten years earlier, a year after he and his wife, Amy, moved to Little Village because Amy got a teaching job, they experienced gang violence.

A gang by their house, the Latin Kings, found out the Castanedas were calling the police when the Kings were gang banging. In retaliation, their house was set on fire.

“Our initial reaction was, 'This is crazy, let's get out of here,’” Castaneda said.

But neither of them wanted to leave. For the past year they had been working with kids in Little Village.

“You’re building relationships and telling kids don't be intimidated and here we are in a situation where we're the targets of intimidation,” he said.

Even though it would have been easy to leave, they decided the harder, and more important, the right thing to do was stay.

A couple of days later their house was set on fire again. The gang later came back a third time and threw a bottle through a window as someone screamed, “We’re gonna kill you.”

It’s a different story now.

Once the gangs realized that Castaneda was trying to do good in the community, their opposition waned.

Beyond the Ball now provides youth programs for more than 1,000 youth in Little Village.

They teach personal and social responsibility through sports and focus heavily on community development. They’re running 12 programs for kids from kindergarten to high school. Their more intentional programming is for kindergarten to 8th grade. Amy, a teacher at Ortiz De Dominguez Elementary School, at 30th Street and Lawndale, is finishing her doctorate in curriculum studies, specifically in sports-based youth and community development.

But the thing that separates this organization from other youth-based sports organizations is the community focus.

Little Village is called the Mexican capital of the Midwest. There are about 90,000 residents in four square miles and half of them are under the age of 24, according to Castaneda. It also has the least amount of green space in Chicago.

"When you have so many youth without the park space, it leaves a lot of youth out on the streets looking for recreation,” Castaneda said.

The Latin Kings and Two Six have been warring for 30 years. The space between Ortiz De Dominguez Elementary School and Gary Elementary School is the boundary between the gangs, Castaneda said. That’s precisely where some of the programming takes place.

Five years ago, Rob and Amy and the community transformed it. What was once a dangerous space is now a play space for kids.

Castaneda said parents come up to them with tears in their eyes and say, “Before Beyond the Ball came in and doing to stuff they were doing to the Gary-Ortiz campus, we didn't want to live here, we didn't want our kids to go to those schools, we were just trying to save our money to get out of this neighborhood. Now this is where we want to be. We want our kids to go to school there. We know that if we leave this neighborhood they're not going have these types of programs.”

Castaneda’s goal is to change the way the people perceive the space in the community. He says there are about 3,000 gang members in the community, a relatively small amount compared to the community as a whole. These gang members dominate how the community acts and feels.

“Community is more than just things that happen around you, but what you're doing,” he said.

One of the programs is called B-ball on the Block, through which streets are closed for traveling basketball tournaments.

“One night a week we're taking back the streets and kids are able to play, and residents are able to be out and see the better part of the neighborhood,” Castaneda said.

Another program is called Project Play. They take a play space that has been underutilized and invite people out to play. The first event was a picnic for kindergarten and first grade kids which drew about 1,000 people.

He believes kids should be able to just play.

“There’s so much research that shows when kids get to play they become so much more resilient against trauma,” Castaneda said. “Kids in the community grow up experiencing so much with gang violence and domestic violence.”

He wants to be an outlet for them.

“For kids to be able to play and have experiences where they're able to release a lot of that stress, it's scientifically proven that it's beneficial,” Castaneda said. “A more powerful benefit is the relationships they're able to build through coaches and people they can talk to.”


Coaches are a necessary influence on kids in Chicago.

Castaneda said one night he received a phone call from someone who had been through the program, but who hadn’t been in contact in years. He told Castaneda that he had become an electrician because that's what Castaneda used to do.

“It just goes to show you how much influence or how much it means to kids when you're having those interactions with them,” Castaneda said.

Cesar Aguilar, a sixth-grader, has been coming to Beyond the Ball since he was in kindergarten. He says Coach Rob is his favorite coach and has taught him some very important life lessons.

“Don't use violence or be in gangs or use drugs.”

He says he’s a good basketball players and his goal is to be like Derrick Rose in the NBA.

Troy Curtis, now with 3point Athletics, has been coaching for five years. He says he grew up playing sports and he would coach even if he wasn’t getting paid.

“It's hard for your parents to be your parent and your role model, so someone outside your household as your role model is always a plus,” Curtis said.

Last year Curtis coached in Englewood. He says it’s night and day from coaching at the Menomonee Club he’s at now, but he recognizes that all kids need role models no matter where they are.

“I just try to push kids going in the right direction. There's so much stuff you can get into with just having ample free time to do whatever you want rather than being in an instructional setting with kids and coaches.”

Brent McDonald has been coaching with 3point Athletics for six years, and recently became an assistant coach at Locke Elementary School. He enjoys teaching his kids off the court lessons.

“Teaching kids the other things that go along with basketball like leadership, dedication, being on time, that stuff will go with them for the rest of their life,” McDonald said. “Basketball, they may not do in high school even but all this other stuff they'll do for the rest of their life.”

Robert Aurin’s 12-year-old son, Alexander, plays on Brent’s team at the Menomonee Club. He says McDonald is a positive role model for his son.

“It's someone they look up to, it's someone in authority who can give him some good advice, so to have that positive atmosphere is very beneficial to kids,” Aurin said.

“Ten years from now they're probably not going to remember what their record was but they will remember what their experience was like. We want it to be a positive one,” says Tom Schweitzer, co-founder of 3Point Athletics.


Castaneda has been able to hire some of the guys who have come up through the program to be coaches. One of them is 21-year-old Michel Tilapa. Not only have Rob and Amy been coaches and teachers (he had Amy as his art teacher at Little Village Academy), they have been mentors. Because of them he decided to major in Elementary Education and wants to pursue his mater’s degree in youth development.

Tilapa looked up to Castaneda because he knew how to play basketball and he stood up to the gangs.

“When you're young you say gangs are tough,” Tilapa said. “And if there's this one guy standing up to 30 gang bangers, this guy's even tougher. And he's not doing anything negative, he's just saying this is not right. I look up to him because he stood up to them in a positive way, using sport.”

Their relationship has grown to friendship on and off the court.

“For me I made a relationship with somebody I could look up to and somebody who had really high expectations of me,” Tilapa said. “They made a positive impact and now there are more of us who actually want to make that same positive impact.”