Character Team

Humberto Z.

Born premature, Humberto Zatarain has always looked at life as a challenge. "It's been like that since day one - fighting to survive," said the 19-year-old Whittier resident. Moving from foster home to foster home, Zatarain tried to stay away from trouble.

"Often I was approached by gang members," he said. "I witnessed drug use and violence that no child should ever have to see."

Zatarain, determined to stay away from gangs and drugs, started focusing on sports.

"In elementary school I began playing baseball and any other sport that was available," he said.

But he was still approached daily by gang members.

As he got older, and attending four different high schools because of being moved around, the challenge grew more difficult.

But in his senior year, he found a mentor in Jacob Salas, a Muay Thai trainer.

Salas, 30, took Zatarain under his wing.

The son of a world champion kickboxer who used his Whittier backyard as a training ground for himself and others, Salas is now helping kids stay out of trouble by teaching them the martial art.

"Muay Thai gave me confidence, a sense of purpose and a way to keep out of trouble," he said.

The sport is a derivative of karate, boxing, taekwondo and other combat styles.

"I was blessed with a trainer who believed in me," Zatarain said.

"He is teaching me self-discipline," he said. "Before, I was uncontrollable and engaged in several schoolyard fights."

Salas trains a group of young men and women at a converted racquetball court at the First Family Church activity center.

Known as Team Salas, the group of amateur fighters, compete in matches around the country.

In fact, Zatarain just returned from winning a bout touted as "California vs. New York," in the Big Apple.

"He won by unanimous vote against the hometown boy," Salas said.

Unfortunately, entry fees, accommodation costs, airplane tickets and the price of uniforms adds up.

Zatarain, who is attending Rio Hondo College and working a part-time job while mentoring his 7-year-old adoptive brother, is seeking sponsorships.

"My dream is continue with college and develop my fighting career, but it's expensive," he said.

Zatarain said anyone who sponsors him is investing in the future.

"We are all struggling, and Muay Thai is giving me a chance at a better life," he said.

UPDATE: Zatarain has moved on from Muay Thai to boxing and has become a pro in the sport.

After growing up in foster care and group homes, Zatarain has finally found a family which he has happily been together with for the past three years.

"To all you teens out there, find something besides drugs or gangs," Zatarain said. "There is a good soul in each and every one of us."