Youth Activity League packs punch for locals

“I love doing it; I really do,” says Flores.

by Tracy Marcynzsyn

Every weeknight from 5-7 p.m., a committed group of local youth gathers at Westpark Community Center in Ventura to work out and learn to box with Sal Flores, a Ventura businessperson and lifelong resident who works with the city Parks & Recreation Department to mentor at-risk kids, ages 6-18.

“It’s a really nice place to distract yourself instead of being at home; it’s good for you!” says participant Breana Hernandez, 13.

Many of the youth, like ninth grader Rafael Juarez, who started in third grade, look forward to boxing year after year.

“It gives me an outlet and helps me work out,” says Juarez. “It’s helped me build a lot of stamina and make friends; everybody has been like a family.”

Building relationships and connecting with the kids, as well as teaching them boxing skills and promoting physical fitness, drives Flores to dedicate his time to mentoring youth.

“I love doing it; I really do,” says Flores, now in his 12th year as a youth mentor. “I was one of these kids. I live by the code ‘kids don’t know how much you know until they know how much you care.’” Flores recalls spending time as a kid in the same community center where he now teaches.

As a troubled teenager with a tough family life, Flores struggled in his younger years, getting arrested and landing in jail before turning his life around with the help and encouragement of a local mentor in the police force.

“Use the bad experiences for good,” Flores advises. “I used to break into cars, now I own a locksmith company; I used to destroy things, and now I own Ideal Upholstery, where I fix and make things nice again,” says Flores, who founded a local Youth Activity League (YAL; formerly structured as a Police Activity League with the Ventura Police Foundation) to support, mentor and inspire at-risk youth.

Working with local school districts, Flores visits schools twice a week, every other Monday during lunch, to encourage and connect with kids through the Youth Activity League. Bringing lunch (Subway sandwiches this week) and guest speakers, such as probation officer Mark Varela and former WBC Welterweight boxer Victor Ortiz, Flores aims to inspire youth.

“We really try to guide these kids; we bring them lunch, talk about what matters,” says Flores. “We try to show we really care for them and that we’ve been in their shoes. We were stuck and thought we couldn’t be successful. Whatever these kids need, we guide them to resources. We want to teach the value of life lessons.”

Guest speaker Ortiz recently shared his story to encourage teens to overcome challenges. Referring to a broken jaw that impacted his boxing career as a “blessing in disguise,” Ortiz noted that “often adversity brings us blessings or change.”

“I came from a messed-up background,” shared Ortiz, who also participated in a PAL as a kid in Kansas. “I was just hanging on … then as a successful boxer, I learned money wasn’t where it was at. Hollywood wasn’t either. It’s what brings joy that counts. Now I have two boys—they’re what matters. I want to give the youth hope.”

“It’s the experience you give to others. When you have a story kids can relate to, and they see we’re so passionate about sharing our story, it matters,” says Flores, who also serves as a pastor at Redemption Church in Ojai.

Building trust and showing youth that people care can divert kids from turning to gangs when seeking to connect and belong, says Flores.

“They are a part of something,” he explains, pointing out several kids who show up to work out in the boxing program each night, year after year, on their own accord. “Some kids have been here for 5 years,” notes Flores.

Aldahir Benitez began boxing with Flores at Westpark at age 16 to “meet new friends and be with my cousins.” Today, Benitez is employed with the city Parks and Recreation afterschool program and volunteers in the boxing class after his shift.

“I like boxing and interacting with the kids,” says Benitez, noting that “Sal is a great person; he helps everyone that he can, whenever he can.”

Flores beamed watching the young boxers eagerly unwrap and try out a shipment of new boxing gloves recently donated by the city, noting the YAL is currently seeking donations for t-shirts.

“We want all of them to walk with pride,” says Flores. “They show up, committed; most of them have a tough family life.”

With some 58 kids participating in the weeknight boxing program and another 50 teens in the school lunch YAL, Flores is making an impact.

“It’s something we love to do,” says Flores, noting the YAL’s goal is to obtain a dedicated facility to expand programming and reach more kids. “We want to inspire youth.”

For more information, including how to donate to the Youth Activity League, contact Sal Flores at 805.651.8647.

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