Three Chimneys presents Good News Friday: Oaklawn’s ‘Family’ Touches Lives
When Oaklawn Park employee Gloria Pinckney died of cancer earlier this year, her family had to rent a different church for the funeral. Their church couldn’t hold the hundreds of people who wanted to come.
In addition to many people from the local African-American community who attended, members of the Oaklawn Club where Gloria worked drove from all over Arkansas to pay their respects. Those same customers and Oaklawn employees chipped in to help the family pay for her medical care and funeral services. Two of her co-workers delivered eulogies. Gloria’s family made sure they had gorgeous Derby hats. Gloria always wore the best Derby hat.
“They made us a big part of the celebration of her life,” said Tina Breshears, manager of the Oaklawn Club. “They knew that Oaklawn Park was such a big part of her life. We were her second family.”
“We talk about the Oaklawn Family,” said track General Manager Eric Jackson. “And this truly was. Spanning race, religion, income, education and occupation.”
Stories like Gloria’s echo through the years at the venerable Arkansas racetrack. People work their entire lives at Oaklawn. Gloria had been there for more than three decades. There are employees with 40 or 50 years on their resumes. They are not only loyal to the company. They are loyal to each other.
“You feel like they take care of you, and they know who you are,” said Breshears about Oaklawn. “Everyone speaks to everybody. Everyone seems to get along. When someone needs something – whether it be medical care, a coat or a ride home – somebody from Oaklawn is always there.”
“We had a line cook whose home burned to the ground,” said Mary McGrew, senior service director of food and beverage. “All of us raised money and donated clothes. The company matched all of the donations.”
This spirit of family and giving isn’t insular. The feeling pervades the entire community of Hot Springs, a city of about 35,000 where Oaklawn has been a pillar since the early 1900′s. With the exception of the first couple years of its existence, Oaklawn has been owned by the same family – the Cellas of St. Louis – for more than a century. Today, the track is run by Charles J. Cella, a St. Louis businessman whose commitment to his adopted home of Hot Springs is expressed in many tangible ways.
Chief among them is the Oaklawn Foundation for the Future of Hot Springs. The foundation was established in 2007 following the passage of expanded gaming at Oaklawn. The Cellas pledged $1 million to create the foundation once electronic games of skill, like video poker, were approved.
“This was our gift to the community when the community worked with us to revive our program,” said Jackson, who was born and raised in Hot Springs.
Oaklawn contributes about $500,000 a year from wagering and gaming revenues to the foundation. As a separate entity from the track, the foundation’s primary mission is to fund scholarships for students and support health programs for senior citizens in Hot Springs, such as the opening of the Oaklawn Senior Health Care Center. Last month, the foundation pledged $250,000 to help the local Mid-America Science Museum expand. To date, more than 200 scholarships have been awarded to students ranging in age from 18 to 60.
“Seeing the faces of the young people who get these scholarships is such a joy,” said foundation chairman Darrell Meyer. “We’re not a wealthy community. A lot of those people would not be able to go to college without this assistance. Some people are completely against gambling, but even a lot of those people have seen the benefits of this.”
Oaklawn GM Eric Jackson said the Cellas and their racetrack have long been leaders in the community. During parts of the year, Oaklawn is the city’s largest employer, and there’s a sense of responsibility that goes along with that.
“We’re a big fish in a little fish bowl, and we feel like we have to be a model of citizenship in our community,” said Jackson. “Perhaps we’ve occasionally fallen short in that respect, but with this foundation, that is definitely not the case. It is touching lives. These are our friends and neighbors.”
There are few communities in America where a horse racing track has such a profound and positive impact. To employees like Tina Breshears, the track and the community are forever intertwined.
“I thank God every day for Oaklawn Park.”
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Thanks to the generosity of Three Chimneys Farm, the sponsor of Good News Friday, a donation of $100 will be made to the Oaklawn Foundation for the Future of Hot Springs. Three Chimneys will be donating $100 each and every week we bring you a story of people or organizations making a positive difference in our world.