Matt Sanchez, former Eastside gang member turned mentor for local youth, died Tuesday evening. The cause of his death has not been confirmed.
Sanchez was known for his efforts with All for One, the nonprofit group he created to help divert young people from gang life by pairing them with mentors and guiding them toward positive activities. In addition to his community involvement, he was a barber at his family-owned Montecito Barbers on Coast Village Road, where he had worked since 1991.
Before helping to lift young people out of life without opportunity, Sanchez’s own past had looked as bleak as those he worked to help in his later years.
Sanchez helped form one of Santa Barbara’s first street gangs in the 1970s, and was even on a watch list created by the Santa Barbara Police Department’s first gang task force.
Sanchez went into the U.S. Marines Corps to avoid prison, but after his service returned to gang life.
Sanchez witnessed numerous tragedies that would become pivotal in his decision to sever ties with gang life — his brother was killed in a gun accident, and Sanchez himself lost numerous friends to gang violence.
Turning to heroin and then becoming ensnared in drug addiction, Sanchez was eventually sentenced to several years in a maximum-security prison.
After he was released, Sanchez began All for One in an effort to turn young people away from the incarceration he had experienced.
One of the program’s most well-known efforts were “the Hoods in the Woods” trips that Sanchez led. Young people from rival gangs were taken on trips to places such as the Sierras, giving them a chance to form friendships as well as realize what lay beyond the city limits.
“We just try to show them something different,” Sanchez says in a promotional video on the All for One website.
In 2000, Sanchez was awarded the California Wellness Foundation’s California Peace Prize for his work with the nonprofit.
Ed Cue, Director of the Daniel Bryant Center, recalled attending Bishop Diego with Sanchez, and knew him as far back as playing sports for their local elementary schools.
Cue said, in some circles, Sanchez was a legend for the ferocity he demonstrated in the streets, but that Sanchez’s true sense of courage should be measured for how he made those same streets safe later in life.
“I hear so many stories about Matt the gangster or Matt the guy that served time,” Cue said. “The Matt I knew as a kid was kind, generous and smart. He may have gone through some tough times but in the end he returned to form and gave of himself to give someone less fortunate a second chance.”
“He had a tremendous capability of connecting with local kids who were at high risk of gang life and giving them instead hope for a better future,” she said. “As the City of Santa Barbara started working with many stakeholders on the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs, Matt provided us with honest feedback, and educated us on how to be as effective as possible in preventing violence in our community.”
Frank Banales, Executive Director of Zona Seca, said that Sanchez would be missed by his friends, but all the more by the youth he touched.
Sanchez worked for Zona Seca as they managed the Pro Youth Coalition, Banales said, adding that All for One became one of the coalition’s most successful programs because of the amount of at risk youth it reached and because Sanchez eventually secured his own funding to continue his work.
“As a gang member of the past who took a positive direction and became a successful businessman, Matt had the ability to influence young troubled youth to take a positive road like he did. Very few people have had this experience and influence,” Banales said.
In addition to the loss of Sanchez, Banales lamented the death of Babatunde Folayemi, a long-time advocate for at-risk youth who died earlier this year.
“With both Babatunde and Matt gone now, I don’t see that high level of experience left in our community at this time,” he said.
“Although many residents in our community never knew the fine work Matt performed…I hope they come to realize that there are other people in the community doing work with this population that very seldom become recognized for the contribution they make.”
Services for Sanchez are pending.