by NYRA Press Office
In following her older sister to New York from Venezuela, the last thing on the mind of 10-year-old Karen Barros was horse racing.
That was more than three decades ago. Barros, now Chavez, would become a fifth-grader and one of two E.S.L. students in her class at Clara H. Carlson Elementary School in Elmont, just wanting to acclimate. Some years later, after Nick Caras of the New York Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America (RTCANY) visited her church looking for volunteers, a teenage Chavez began working on the Belmont Park backstretch – and found her calling.
“When I arrived as a girl, I was going to spend the summer here and see if I could get into school,” said Mrs. Chavez, now the Chaplain’s general manager and married to its Chaplain, Humberto Chavez. “But God her other plans for me. After I began volunteering on the backstretch, it was like puzzle pieces coming together. Looking back today, I realize this is where I was meant to be.”
Those who attended the Chaplaincy’s annual awards luncheon last August in Saratoga, when Mrs. Chavez spoke movingly about her journey, may be familiar with parts of that story. Caras, the Chaplaincy’s program director, said he never tires of hearing her refer to it, citing “Karen’s authentic and deeply moving devotion” to the serving the men and women who look after the horses on New York’s thoroughbred tracks.
“We’re a team here and Karen is a vital part of it,” said Caras. “What we do on the backstretch and the services we provide are only as good as our people. Karen’s hard work and creativity make us better in all kinds of ways.”
At the track, Mrs. Chavez felt at home from the get-go, thanks in large part to her sister Lety and brother-in-law Ruben Anez, who as newlyweds had preceded her to New York and found jobs on the backstretch at Belmont Park. To cover Mrs. Chavez’s airfare when she first came to the U.S., Letty took up a collection among co-workers in her barn and raised the funds.
Her family’s work on the backstretch was Chavez’ introduction to thoroughbred racing. That bond deepened when she began volunteering as a teenager as part of her church’s youth group. When Caras came calling again, this time in 2003 to ask Pastor Chavez if he would consider becoming Chaplain for the backstretch, those puzzle pieces really came together.
“We had a young family at the time and really had our hands full but felt really strongly in our hearts that God wanted us here,” said Mrs. Chavez. “There were a lot of people we needed to serve.”
Pastor Chavez accepted the position, and Mrs. Chavez, with three sons at home, began volunteering all over again, taking a staff position in 2006. “As we began serving with the Chaplaincy,” she said with a laugh, “I realized God had brought me back to the place that brought me to the U.S. in the first place.”
Today, from its building inside Gate 6 at Belmont Park, the Chaplaincy runs several programs for the backstretch community. Among the most enduring is its weekly food pantry, which during the pandemic served an average of 500 families a week. Those numbers have dropped significantly to about 120 families a week, but the need, and the program, remain.
Driving some of the Chaplaincy’s programs is a straight-forward philosophy – “seeing a need on the backstretch and responding,” as Mrs. Chavez put it. An example is the summer enrichment program for backstretch children in Saratoga, which started back in 2006 after she and Caras recognized that some backstretch families, at considerable expense, were sending their children to stay with relatives in their home countries during the summer meet. Today, children can stay with their families and attend the enrichment Pine Grove Campground in Saratoga, where they’re safely cared for and supervised. Upwards of 30 backstretch families also stay in the recently-renovated cabins at Pine Grove for the meet.
Mrs. Chavez takes particular pride in developing the Chaplaincy’s women’s enrichment and mentoring program, which has helped hundreds of women tackle issues from learning English to providing better nutrition for their families and starting businesses. This month for International Women’s Day, the Chaplaincy hosted a seminar for backstretch women on starting a business. That program has since morphed into separate teen mentoring groups for girls and boys; and the Chaplaincy often steers members of the backstretch community to related Belmont Park-based programs of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) and the Belmont Childcare Association (BCCA).
Just ahead is the eagerly-anticipated opening of the Chaplaincy’s 3,500-square-foot building, which will double the Chaplaincy’s current space and become its hub. A team of New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) carpenters, electricians and plumbers is working on the building, which is expected to open in 2023. It will house a chapel, a multi-purpose room, a classroom to be named after Hall of Famer and longtime NYRTCA supporter Cot Campbell, and staff offices.
After the building opens, the Chaplaincy will continue to utilize the trailers for the weekly food pantry and clothing drive, which are currently held outdoors. A core component of the NYRTCA, the non-denominational services now held at Belmont Park’s recreation hall, will move into a dedicated chapel within the new building.
The founding partners of the new building are the late Marylou Whitney, John Hendrickson, former NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay and his wife Kristine, Michael Dubb, Kenny and Lisa Troutt, West Point Thoroughbreds, Seth A. and Beth S. Klarman, Dogwood Stable, and the Estate of Dolores Ochota.
Thoroughbred owner and NYRA board member Michael Dubb supplied the bulk of all materials for the new Chaplaincy Center. Mr. Dubb is also the founder and chairman of the BCCA at Belmont Park; and he and his wife, Lee, founded Faith’s House, the BCCA childcare center for the backstretch community at Saratoga Race Course, which opened in the summer of 2021.
“Every day, we see the progress of the new building and it’s very exciting,” said Mrs. Chavez. “The new building will allow us to provide the kind of services needed by the backstretch. It’s a community I’ve just grown to love and a place I belong.”
To learn more about the New York Race Track Chaplaincy, visit: https://www.rtcany.org/
Getting to know…Dionne Johnson
This month’s edition of Getting to know…visits with Dionne Johnson, the longtime Business Manager for the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA), Johnson plays a crucial role in coordinating the organization’s program of scholarship grants for the backstretch community. With the 2023 scholarship process due to begin shortly, Johnson discusses the program’s extraordinary impact in helping hundreds of students realize the dream of higher education.
How many students have earned NYTHA scholarship grants?
The program goes back many years; and since 2008, has assisted 571 students to attend college. In 2021, the most recent year we’ve compiled the statistics, we distributed a total of $183,967 to 41 students, who received scholarship grants, which covers transportation and books as well. There’s a lot of power in those numbers.
How do the scholarship grants impact backstretch families?
The grants are a major way that children of the backstretch community can secure their futures. These students from backgrounds defined by hard work and dedication to our sport – and are often the first in their families to attend college. Their fields of study run the gamut from accounting to business management, criminal justice and biochemistry. And they’ve become veterinarians, business professionals and even airline pilots. Watching their journeys is so inspiring.
Can you provide a success story or two?
There are so many, so let me focus on a few of the six scholarship winners receiving degrees in 2022. They include Carlos, who earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and is now pursuing a master’s at Columbia University. There’s Celine, who finished a master’s in accounting at Baruch. Judy received a B.S. in Biology and is studying for a master’s at the University of New Haven in her dream to become a forensic scientist. And Yasmar earned a B.S. in Nuclear Medicine Technology at Molloy College and wants to be a dentist. What’s so interesting is how grounded these students are and how seriously they take their studies.
Of all the things you do for NYTHA, where does your work on the scholarship program rank?
Hands down, it’s my absolute favorite. We know these families and understand their commitment to racing. Being able to give their children a leg-up is the American dream. It’s huge for families. And it goes right to the heart of NYTHA’s mission to support the families who dedicate their lives to caring for the horses.
What’s the application process?
Get in touch with me at [email protected]. I can’t wait to see who applies this year!
To learn more about the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, visit https://nytha.com/.
In the community…
Applications open for Faith's House at Saratoga Race Course
Faith's House, open to children of backstretch workers, trainers and racetrack employees, is located at Saratoga Race Course near the Oklahoma Training Track. Operated by the Belmont Child Care Association [BCCA], the beautiful child care center, which operates seven days per week from 5 a.m. - 5 p.m. for children ranging from infants to 5-years-old, is now accepting applications for the 2023 Saratoga summer meet.
Faith’s House offers dedicated rooms for infants, toddlers and pre-school aged children, in addition to an outside play area.
Funded by Michael and Lee Dubb, the 4,300-square-foot childcare center is named in memory of Faith Dubb, mother of BCCA founder and board chairman Michael Dubb.
The Saratoga facility complements BCCA’s sister childcare center Anna House, which serves families of the Belmont Park backstretch. More than 1,000 students have participated in Anna House’s programs since its opening in 2003.
To learn more, visit: https://www.belmontchildcare.org/saratoga-child-ca....
Support the TRF and receive a good-luck shoe from the horses!
In honor of St. Patrick's Day, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), an equine retirement facility accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), want to send you an authentic, good luck horseshoe worn by today's racehorses.
Any donation made between March 10th- March 17th in the amount of $40+ will receive this gift of good luck.
The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) and its horsemen are committed supporters of the TAA, which accredits, inspects, and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations to retrain, retire, and rehome thoroughbreds using industry-wide funding.
A helping hand….
Experience the thrill of racing at Saratoga from the BEST seat in the house
Support the Backstretch Employee Service Team [B.E.S.T.] and watch the third race of a summer card at Saratoga Race Course from the announcer's booth. Meet track announcer Frank Mirahmadi, take in the breathtaking view, and share in a truly special moment as he calls the day’s 3rd Race. The best part? Your ticket cost goes directly to benefit B.E.S.T. Don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of the action!
Due to the limited availability for spectators in the booth, along with a heavy demand by racing fans to participate, a no refund policy will be observed. However, there will be an opportunity to reschedule to a date, upon availability, provided the original booking date can be resold.
For more information, please reach out to Sheriza Serravento at [email protected]
B.E.S.T. is a nonprofit organization that is devoted to resolving the health and social needs of the several thousand barn area ("backstretch") workers of the Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga racetracks by providing on-site counseling and primary healthcare services, access to health insurance, and case management assistance.
To learn more visit https://www.bestbackstretch.org/