Sometimes, positive change comes just from paying attention to the world around you.
In 1998, jockey Jerry Bailey and his wife noticed that workers on the backstretch at Belmont Park seemingly had no place to put their children during the day.
They were seeing kids in cars. They were seeing kids in horse stalls.
They mentioned the problem to top Thoroughbred owner Michael Dubb. Within a few months, the Belmont Child Care Association was off and running, and it hasn't stopped since.
With Dubb's financial backing, a day care center was built, and a licensed child care provider brought in to operate the facility. The BCCA began fundraising efforts to ensure the center would remain viable in the future.
“This has changed everything,” said Donna Chenkin, the group's executive director. “By having the children here, it's made the backstretch workers much more productive. They don't have to worry about their children. Their kids are now safe, and they are learning.”
On its first day, the center had one child. Within six months, Chenkin said the day care was full and has been full almost every day since – seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“To help even just one child makes me feel good. But to help 70 families at once, that makes a big difference,” Chenkin said.
But the BCCA has evolved into much more than a place for workers to leave their kids during working hours. In 2002, Dubb led an effort to build a new home for the day care on the grounds at Belmont. Named for the daughter of horse racing owners Laura and Eugene Melnyk, who pledged $1 million to the BCCA, the new facility, Anna House, has become a learning, healing and help center for backstretch workers and their families.
There's a tutoring program for older kids. There's a program to assist battered women. The Mexican Consulate makes regular visits to work with immigrants on their U.S. documentation. Children learn English, the arts, cooking and other skills. There's a Book Barn for reading and a technology center for learning computers.
“We have a very big music program, where musicians come in and play the cello” Chenkin said. “We have a chess master who comes in once a week and works with the older pre-school children to learn chess.”
The BCCA takes a holistic approach to helping people, and the community has bought into the concept. Dubb still actively supports the BCCA – in 2010, he built two extensions to Anna House, including the “Lemon Drop Kid Playground” – but other well-known names in the Thoroughbred industry have stepped in to lend their financial support and time.
In 2006, Gretchen and Roy Jackson, the owners of Barbaro, created the Lael Scholarship Fund to make sure Anna House would always have enough money to provide early childhood education. The Jacksons have donated to the fund every year since, and last year, it topped $1 million. In 2008, Jesse Jackson and Barbara Banke's Curlin for Kids Charity contributed $100,000.
Last month, the BCCA received a donation from Mike Repole, who promised he would make additional contributions to charities if he could take possession of 2011 Travers Stakes winner Stay Thirsty's canoe in the Saratoga infield.
“There are so many great backstretch charities, and I try my best to help out as many as I can,” Repole told the Paulick Report. “The reason why Anna House is very special to me is that it is about the children of the backstretch workers. I will always remember the time that one of the classes of Anna House came by to meet Uncle Mo. It was great to see how excited the children were to be there. This is really a great charity that benefits many great families.”
Repole and others donated auction items for the recent “Demin and Diamonds” event in Saratoga Springs, a major annual fundraiser for the BCCA. This year, the evening raised $300,000 toward the BCCA's $1 million budget.
Outside of the racing community, the group gets support from local churches that donate clothing or Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops who volunteer to conduct coat drives or diaper drives to earn badges. Right now, Chenkin is collecting thousands of new, donated items for an annual holiday event in December, where kids come to the track and “shop” for Christmas presents for their parents and family members.
“I think it's important at a very young age that children learn to give back,” said Chenkin.
The parents are finding out new things as well.
“A lot of these workers come from a culture where school wasn't even mandatory until a few years ago,” Chenkin said. “They're learning that through education, there can be success.”
Another expansion could be in the works at Anna House – an infant room is needed since there is a waiting list for children – and Chenkin believes the BCCA is creating a model that could be emulated at other tracks around the country.
“We had a very driven group of horse owners and trainers who wanted this to happen,” she said. “But you have to have that group. There's no other place in the country that runs a full-time child care center seven days a week. And there's a tremendous need with racetrack workers.”
Thanks to the generosity of Three Chimneys Farm, the sponsor of Good News Friday, a donation of $100 will be made in support of the Belmont Child Care Association. 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.
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