NYRA Cares: A garden grows at Belmont Park, bringing fresh vegetables to the backstretch | NYRA
Oct 4, 2022
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NYRA Cares: A garden grows at Belmont Park, bringing fresh vegetables to the backstretch

by Jim Reisler

“Just look at this lovely garden,” said Stella Cardenas, surveying one of the newest and most vibrant additions to the Belmont Park backstretch: a community vegetable garden. “Getting this far has taken teamwork, love … and a lot of water.”

Leading a quick tour of the fenced-in 72-by-14-foot plot of land, tucked against a small hill just south of Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn 35, Cardenas, who is the Backstretch Employee Service Team’s (B.E.S.T.) outreach worker and case manager, points out the highlights.

There are two kinds of tomatoes – large and cherry – and zucchinis. There are three kinds of peppers – hot, medium and green bell. A few feet away are eggplants, a patch of green beans, and a variety of herbs, including parsley, mint and cilantro. The bounty and splash of color would do a farm stand proud.

“Look how far we’ve come with some work and a few seeds,” Cardenas said. “Our hope is this will become the model for creating better nutrition here.”

The planting of a community garden is the focus of that model: a crucial part of a pilot program underway at Belmont Park to deliver an array of home-grown vegetables to backstretch families while encouraging a more nutritional diet through workshops. On the agenda is a program to incorporate a few of the vegetables from the garden in menus to be offered at the backstretch cafeteria.

The garden is actually two 36 ft. x 7 ft. plots planted side by side on land recommended by the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) because it’s fairly central, close to residential dorms, and can be easily watered by a nearby pump.

So, on a muggy day in June, a team from B.E.S.T., the Northwell Health Community Outreach and Community Relations group and Fidelis Care, with shovels in hand, broke ground. Advising them was Northwell Community Relations Program Manager Margaret Schmitt, known as the “Farm lady of Long Island” and formerly of F & W Schmitt’s Family Farm in Melville. The NYRA team then enclosed the garden with fencing. NYRA also regularly waters the property.

“When Northwell and B.E.S.T. asked for our help in identifying a suitable piece of property, we didn’t hesitate for a second,” said NYRA Senior Vice President, Operations & Capital Projects Glen Kozak. “This is a good idea that will benefit a lot of people who work on the backstretch. We’re more than happy to contribute.”

Gardens aren’t new to the backstretch. Look carefully and you’ll see random tomato vines in the nooks and crannies of Belmont Park barns. The Belmont Child Care Association also sports a vegetable garden at its day care center, Anna House, for the children to learn about healthy eating.

The new garden at Belmont Park fits right into role in the growing holistic approach to healthcare at the track, marking another step forward in Northwell’s emerging relationship with the New York backstretch community. That relationship kicked off in 2020 when Northwell began providing COVID-19 testing for backstretch workers at Belmont Park, and followed in 2021 with dispensing COVID-19 vaccine. More than 90 percent of the hundreds of backstretch workers based at Belmont are vaccinated, which is well above the New York State average.

“From the vaccine program, we got to know some of the backstretch workers and learn about their lives,” said Northwell Corporate Community Relations Regional Manager Patty McColley. “But we wanted to do more than just give vaccines. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of backstretch workers and help them tackle in some cases, high blood pressure and diabetes. It’s helping people in the community to become healthier and more self-sufficient. This is an issue that’s near and dear to our hearts.”

Northwell’s Clinical Program Manager and registered dietitian nutritionist Anastasia Schepers agreed, calling the garden a “win-win” – a “link between food and health and a way to promote health and prevent disease.”

In early 2022, Northwell’s connection to the backstretch community moved ahead another notch when it assumed the management of Belmont Park’s 1,000-square-foot heath care clinic. Staffed with four rotating Northwell physicians, the Northwell Health/B.E.S.T. Health Care Clinic treats people’s aches and pains, as always, but now takes a more holistic approach to health care by advocating healthy living and preventive care.

“This community collaboration has been years in the making,” said Vice President of Community Relations at Northwell Health Edward Fraser.

The clinic also added free screenings for breast and colon cancer, a mental health therapist and classes on ergonomics led by a Northwell physical therapist.

“We’re taking a real approach to community medicine and health care on the backstretch,” said B.E.S.T. Executive Director Paul Ruchames. “The clinic for instance is here to deal with the injuries, which it has always done. But what we’re seeing are more people coming in for physicals, and more people interested in learning how to adopt a healthier lifestyle. The planting of the vegetable garden moves the needle ahead even further.”

So even as the fall weather turns colder, the Northwell/B.E.S.T. heath care team are formalizing their plan for the vegetable garden next spring. Upwards of 20 backstretch volunteers are sighed up to help plant next year’s garden with all of them set to take home some of the harvest. Coordinating with several Northwell hospitals and with the cafeteria staff at Belmont, it is planning healthy, low sodium menus to serve in the cafeteria as well as the cooking workshops.

“It’s important to create a feeling of ownership with the vegetable garden said Schepers. “To change habits takes time, but we’re confident that we’ll succeed. A lot of good things – and healthy, nutritious food – are ahead for the men and women who work on the backstretch at Belmont Park.”

Getting to know…Joanne K Adams

This month’s edition of Getting to know…visits with Joanne K. Adams, Executive Director of the Belmont Child Care Association (BCCA), which this year is celebrating 20 years of providing a year-round early childhood education and development program for the children of backstretch families at Anna House at Belmont Park. And since 2021, the BCCA has offered a seasonal program during the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course at Faith’s House.

This state-of-the-art program is for children from 6 weeks to 5-years-of-age. BCCA also provides after-school tutoring and enrichment programs and before-school drop-off for elementary and middle school students, making it a continual and important resource for the children and their families.

As the school year begins, what tools are you using to advance the learning process at BCCA?

BCCA has an outdoor classroom, our garden, where our children learn about the growth cycle of plants while growing their own fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Science class is often taught outside as the children learn to identify different bugs, animals, and plants that they locate in the garden. As children are naturally curious, they look forward to this time to discover things themselves in nature.

During art class, our children sit and paint different flowers and plants they see in the garden, and they also build and decorate bird houses. The children are able to experience nature through outdoor movement activities and often enjoy yoga classes in the garden and games of hide-and-seek which allow them to explore the garden in a fun and relaxing way.

As BCCA strives to provide healthy options for our children at a young age, the garden helps to create a foundation for healthy eating to ensure that the children grow into healthy adults. It all starts in the spring when they plant various vegetables that they then pick and eat for snack time!

What makes BCCA’s program unique?

Anna House is open 365 days a year from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. to accommodate the schedules of the backstretch workers.

In addition to in-person learning, we offer virtual learning for our students by beaming in music, art, and dance instructors to supplement our curriculum during a time when there are still certain COVID protocols in place.

BCCA offers a Women’s Literacy program which meets weekly in a virtual setting. This provides an opportunity for our mother’s to learn English in a safe and supportive environment where they feel connected and empowered to take on new responsibilities.

What is BCCA’s mission?

Our mission is to provide a safe, supportive, and academically inspiring environment for the children of parents working in the Thoroughbred racing backstretch areas at Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack and Saratoga Race Course. We’re committed to promoting early childhood education, molding young minds and encouraging the fulfillment of dreams.

We inspire a love of learning in our students, which we can demonstrate in any number of success stories. For instance, our first graduate is a nominee for a prestigious industry award and a number of our school-age students read more than 100 books collectively this past summer.

A few years ago, one of students was so inspired by our music program, she studied violin in elementary school and asked for one in BCCA’s “Letters to Santa” program.

Guess what? She received it!

Describe BCCA’s Women’s Literacy program. What are the benefits?

The program has proven to be successful since its inception as we have noted positive changes in the mothers who participate. The women enjoy a new-found sense of confidence as they become comfortable speaking English. They create closer bonds with their children as they read with them at home, and feel connected to one another and empowered to take on new responsibilities, both within the group and outside.

We found the women were empowered as individuals and as parents, to advocate for themselves and their families. Those mothers who have participated in the program for an extended time have taken on leadership roles by acting as ambassadors for the program and encouraging other women in the backstretch and the outside community to attend the classes. It’s thanks to their outreach that the program has grown exponentially.

BCCA is incredibly proud of the growth and success of this program, which has become an important part of the lives of these women. The class is not only a place for them to learn English, but a safe and supportive environment where they’re given an opportunity to discuss and work through any issues they encounter in their daily lives.

How does BCCA fund its programs?

BCCA receives funding from individual and corporate donations, grant funding, appeals and fundraising events.

BCCA is a beneficiary of the Americana Manhasset’s Champions for Charity shopping event. You can assist us by designating BCCA as your charity and BCCA will receive a percentage of the proceeds of your sale. This year’s shopping days are December 1 through December 3. Do your holiday shopping and support BCCA! Stay tuned and visit us at www.belmontchildcare.org.

In the community…

2022 Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards ceremony set for October 14

The Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards presented by Godolphin (TIEA) recognize and reward the outstanding talent, diligence, and commitment of the farm and racing stable staff who are at the heart of our sport.

Finalists for the 2022 Thoroughbred industry employee awards in America have been announced, including three finalists in six of the seven categories, as well as the winner and runner-up of the Thoroughbred industry community award—Jessica Hammond of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and Kyle Roper of CHI St. Vincent, respectively.

This year's awards ceremony will be hosted by Keeneland and will take place October 14 in Lexington.

TIEA was pleased to welcome category sponsors for the first time in 2021 and all seven will be returning as sponsors again this year—Hallway Feeds, NTRA, Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, Keeneland, NYRA, I Am Horse Racing, and Churchill Downs.

The winners of the administration, dedication to breeding, dedication to racing, leadership, and support services awards will receive a prize of $7,500, with an additional $2,500 awarded to the winner's team at their farm, stable, or organization. The two runners-up in these categories will win $2,500 each, with $2,500 awarded to their farm, stable, or organization.

The winner of the newcomer award will receive $2,000 and a five-day educational trip to Dubai, with $1,000 awarded to their team at their place of work. The two runners-up in this award will receive $1,000 each, and $1,000 will also be awarded to their farm, stable, or organization.

As the winner of the community award, Hammond will receive a prize of $7,500 and an additional prize of $2,500 will be donated to the charity of her choice. Roper will receive $2,500 as the runner-up in this category.

2022 Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards Finalists

Katherine McKee Administration Award Sponsored by Keeneland

Darla Shoemaker Gaige (Charles Town HBPA)
Blaire Eads (EQUIX)
Angela Ramsey (Sequel Holdings)

Support Services Award Sponsored by I Am Horse Racing

Walter "Stretch" Johnson (Protravel International)
Timothy Tullock, Jr. (Maryland Jockey Club)
Laura Scheer (New York Racing Association)

Dedication to Breeding Award Sponsored by Hallway Feeds

Don Jenkins (Darby Dan Farm)
Danny Mitchell (Denali Stud)
Steve Holbrook (Coolmore America)

Dedication to Racing Award Sponsored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association

Alice Clapham (Graham Motion)
Felipe Pulido Mendoza (Richard Mandella)
Danny Ramsey (McPeek Racing Stables)

Leadership Award Sponsored by Hagyard Equine Medical Institute

Matthew Zehnder (University of Kentucky Maine Chance Farm)
Leana Willaford (Bill Mott)
Anne Eberhardt (BloodHorse)

Newcomer Award Sponsored by New York Racing Association

Charles Churchill (Ed Brown Society and 1/ST Racing)
Maddie Rowland (Elizabeth Merryman)
Jonathan Estrada (David Donk)

Thoroughbred Industry Community Award Sponsored by Churchill Downs

Winner Jessica Hammond (Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association)
Runner-Up (Kyle Roper, CHI St. Vincent)

To learn more, visit: https://tiea.org/

A helping hand….

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Annual Holiday Online Auction

As 2022 begins to draw to a close, don't forget about the Annual Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) Online Auction!

The fundraiser has become a popular tradition with TRF donors and equine enthusiasts across the country. The 10-day auction will start on November 8th and close on November 18th- just in time to have everything shipped to the lucky winners for the holidays! The event will once again be hosted on eBay.

Possible auction items could include Stallion and Mare Halters, Horseshoes, Racing Memorabilia, Artwork, Photographs, Handmade/Artisan Crafts, Handmade Hats, Bags, Blacksmithing Creations, Equestrian Tack, Jewelry, Antiques/Collectibles, Racing and Farm "Swag", Experiences/Tours. Use your imagination- the sky is the limit!

To learn more about the auction or to donate an item or experience, please email Chelsea O'Reilly via [email protected] or visit https://www.trfinc.org/

Support the New York Race Track Chaplaincy Thanksgiving tradition

The New York Racetrack Chaplaincy of America (NYRTCA) is a proud supporter of the backstretch communities of Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga.

With your help, The NY Chaplaincy annually is blessed to provide the fixings for a complete Thanksgiving meal to approximately 300 families of Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack, and Saratoga Race Course.

You make this possible with your donations of food, funds, and your time volunteering. Food drives with your school, church, or any group or individuals arewelcome.

To learn more visit: https://www.flipcause.com/secure/cause_pdetails/MTYwNzEz

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