by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am
By Ray Paulick

Christa Marrillia said she always keeps some tissues handy on Military Appreciation Day, held on the third Sunday of both the spring and fall meetings at Keeneland, where she has served as special events coordinator for the last five years. They are afternoons often filled with emotion and special moments.

First conceived five years ago as a day when veterans, active military and their families could enjoy a day of racing at the Lexington, Ky., racetrack with complimentary admission, seats and a program, Military Appreciation Day has grown steadily under the nurturing of Marrillia, who has no personal connection with family in the military but sees the day as an opportunity for the Keeneland family to give back to those who serve our country.

Working with the United States Army at Fort Knox each spring for the past three years, Keeneland has brought in a thousand recruits fresh from basic training, feeds them, and gives them a day of diversion from the more serious matters for which they are preparing.

When she learned that many of the soldiers had limited opportunities to talk with their families and friends and saw long lines at the track's pay phones, Marrillia (pictured, left) organized a phone bank, using borrowed cell phones from Keeneland employees and customers, allowing the soldiers to call home for free. “Someone from Windstream was there that day, saw what we were doing and said, 'We can do something to help,'” said Marrillia. “They came on-board as a sponsor, providing a bank of 50 phones to allow the soldiers to call anywhere in the world.”

The stories Marrillia heard had her reaching for a tissue. “One soldier found out he is going to be the father of a baby girl,” she said. “Another one discovered his son had learned to say 'I love you.' It was very touching, and it's so nice to give them that opportunity.”

Marrillia also learned that Keeneland's gift shop sold out of disposable cameras within minutes of the soldiers' arrival at the track. She wanted everyone to take some memories home with them and went to work to find a sponsor to donate some cameras. “Many of them had never seen horse racing before,” she said, “and they wanted pictures. Wal-Mart provided them the cameras to do that this year, donating 1,000 disposable cameras.”

The soldiers consumed more than cameras. Each of them received a $10 food voucher from Turf Catering, and the first year the track ran out of ice cream. “We had no idea how much those boys would eat,” Marrillia said.

During the fall meeting, Keeneland worked with the Kentucky National Guard and the University of Kentucky to set up a satellite feed at the track, allowing military families in Kentucky to have private video conferences with their loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the highlights of the last video conference was a soldier overseas getting to see his baby for the first time.

“Over 500 family members came in for the video conferencing,” Marrillia said. “We made personalized buttons for them, and during the national anthem we put pictures of all the soldiers stationed abroad on the infield monitor 'Hollywood Squares' style. It was very touching and they all enjoyed it.”

Participants also take part in winner's circle presentations, and a military band is brought in to add color to the festivities. Keeneland's regular customers get into the spirit, too, many of them giving up their tables in the dining rooms and buying them food, or inviting them up to the corporate suites.

Marrillia credits Ted Bassett, chairman emeritus of the Keeneland board of trustees and a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps, for helping Military Appreciation Day get off the ground. “I worked one-on-one with Mr. Bassett in the early stages because he was able to cut through so much of the red tape and help make the primary contacts with the military, allowing me to connect with the appropriate people,” she said. “Now that we've had a number of these days it's a little easier. Every year he's pleased that it's a new Keeneland tradition.”

Marrillia is the driving force that makes Military Appreciation Day bigger and better each year. “This has been a success because of Christa's enthusiasm for the project,” said Jim Williams, Keeneland's director of communications. “She works with Fort Knox, the local military and our sponsors. She's made it happen.”

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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