The part of a racetrack called the backstretch is arguably the soul of the entire horse racing operation. Here is where horses are trained and cared for on a daily basis. There is a shed row where the animals are stabled and where you’ll find a variety of workers that keep the operation humming—they include trainers, grooms, exercise riders and muckers (the lucky grunts who get to remove dung from horse stalls). At Belmont Park, this other side of the track is much like any other you’d find at racetracks around the country with one exception. This is where the not-for-profit corporation Belmont Child Care Association (BCCA) has set up a child care center called Anna House, the only facility of its kind in the United States that is located on the grounds of a racetrack.
While providing child care services for the families who keep the backstretch humming is the main purpose of Anna House, ensuring these people’s kids have access to quality early childhood education is a primary tenet of the BCCA mission statement. It’s a goal that BCCA Executive Director Donna Chenkin consistently strives for, especially given how hard she sees the parents work on a daily basis.
“These people are struggling to make their lives better, but in particular, their children’s lives better. And they sacrifice so much to be here,” she explained. “I can tell you that if all the workers were to leave these barns tomorrow, you wouldn’t be able to replace them because nobody else wants to come in at five o’clock in the morning, seven days a week, muck stalls and scrub down horses. Without these people, I don’t think the racetrack can run, which generates a lot of income for residents of this community and throughout New York State with all its horse barns.”
Founded in December 1998, the seed for BCCA was planted by retired jockey Jerry Bailey when he was still actively riding. Much of what he saw during frequent walks he took throughout the backstretch with his wife Suzee disturbed him.
“They saw that there were children being frequently kept in cars, sleeping in horse stalls or in illegal day care facilities where they spent most of their day watching television,” recalled Chenkin. “There was nothing productive and it was hard to get day care for these children because of our hours of operation where our workers have to be at work at 5 a.m. Nothing was working, so they had this wonderful idea and got it going through the horse community which responded with billions of dollars donated to build this community.”
With this impetus, many players in the horse racing community stepped up. Heavyweight developer and horse owner Michael Dubb constructed the actual building in 2002 before turning around and donating it to the BCCA. In 2010, he donated an additional pair of extensions as part of helping Anna House expand. (Dubb is still involved as the current chairman of the BCCA board of directors.) Canadian business magnate/racehorse owner Eugene Melnyk and his wife Laura donated $1 million and the building was named for the Melnyks’ youngest daughter in appreciation for their enormous pledge. The Lemon Drop Kid playground area bears the name of the 1999 Belmont Stakes winner in honor of the contributions of Jeanne Vance and Laddie Dance, owners of the champion thoroughbred.
Other major contributors include Hidetoshi Yamamoto, owner of 2008 Peter Pan Stakes winner Casino Drive, whose name adorns one of the toddler roomswhose furnishings were provided by Charlotte Weber, Campbell Soup heiress/owner of Live Oak Stud Farm.
Anna House is a cheery, yellow 11,000 square foot facility. Upon walking into the facility, you’re immediately struck by how bright the surroundings are and the expected surfeit of equine-themed ornamentation found throughout no matter where you turn. On the wall to the left is the framed bridle of 2009 Breeder’s Cup Classic winner Zenyatta that was donated and then sold at a fundraising auction by BCCA for $20,000, only to have the purchasers re-donate it back to the organization. It is gestures like these, Chenkin points out, that are needed to help the BCCA come up with the million dollars-plus that’s annually needed to keep Anna House running.
“We get our funding from various sources—foundations and private donors, mostly from the horse industry; people like owners, trainers and jockeys and many of the major players,” she said. “I raise the money but we’ve subcontracted out to Bright Horizons, which is a company that specializes in childcare. They are the best in the country. I used to work for them, so I know they are. They do a really, really fine job in what they’re doing. Good education doesn’t come cheap.”
A little further back is the Woody Stephens Atrium, where a waiting area of love seats and over-stuffed chairs sit beneath a towering cathedral ceiling that draws in a significant amount of sunlight. Named for the late American thoroughbred horse racing Hall of Fame trainer, the room’s layout is tied together with an impressive mural of stabled horses representing the significant horses he worked with throughout his career—Conquistador Cielo, Caveat, Swale, Crème Fraiche and Danzig Connection. Just off the right are windows that look into an infant room, donated by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, owners of the late Barbaro. (The Jacksons also created the Lael Scholarship Fund in December 2006, a cause they continue to generously donate to annually. In January 2011 the reserve passed the $1 million mark.) The space that bears the name of the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner is not unlike that of a hospital’s maternity ward. A handful of infants as young as six weeks old laying in bassinets are lovingly tended to as their parents toil away at jobs that start off in the wee hours of the morning.
The remainder of the Anna House is made up of a large indoor activity room, a 2,500 square foot playground and the remaining four rooms split between toddlers and a pair dedicated to pre-schoolers. All have the kinds of amenities you’d expect to find in a top flight pre-school—mini-kitchens, tubs full of toys, vibrant rubber mats for the children to gather on for reading time and small sections scattered throughout for naptime. It’s the kind of environment that teacher Jazmin Torres says people shouldn’t be surprised to find at Anna House, given the objectives trying to be achieved here.
“Our goal is that when they enter the public school system, they won’t need any ESL (English as a Second Language) first of all. It’s English-based only in our classroom. Some Spanish is spoken if needed, but all the teachers speak English to the children, so that’s one of our main goals,” Torres pointed out. “We just want them to have the best pre-school experience, so when they enter kindergarten they’re ready. The goal of Anna’s House and Bright Horizon is to get them ready for school. The only unusual part of it all is that we’re located on the backstretch and serve mostly the backstretch community because that’s what we’re here for.”
Open 365 days a year, seven days a week, Anna House’s hours are5 a.m. to 1 p.m., reopening later in the day to accommodate its latest development, an after-school program. With there being an average of 50 children in the day care center and the after-school program handling anywhere from 15 to 20 kids, the Anna House staff employs approximately 35 people alternating days throughout the week.
Mission Statements And Misconceptions
When Chenkin finally gets back to her office, she settles down in a personal space that belies the 10-plus years she’s spent as the executive director of the BCCA. With the Belmont Stakes a few days away, the phone rings at a fairly consistent clip, squeezing in conversations with a concerned parent, having quick exchanges with husband Stuart (who also serves as her assistant) and greeting spouses Tina and Wayne Evans, who’ve stopped by to drop off some paintings for an upcoming fundraising auction.
With immigration being such a hot button topic, there are plenty of misconceptions about the people who work the grunt jobs on the backstretch. With the majority being of Hispanic descent, it’s easy to assume that many are undocumented transients hiding in the shadows and gaming the system while earning substandard wages. It’s a notion that infuriates both Chenkins.
“People think of them as migrant workers but they’re not. They stay here and are part of this Elmont community,” explained the executive director. “I don’t see anybody moving. We’ll usually have a child from six weeks to five years. They go right through our program and we still see them in sixth grade. People are still around.”
“More importantly, they are hard workers. They don’t come here to get on welfare or to cheat the government,” added Stuart Chenkin. “They get up at four o’clock in the morning and come to work very, very hard here for low wages, sometimes below minimum wage. Very little to no benefits and they want their children to succeed. They don’t want their children to do what they do. They’re not trying to milk the system. They just want what’s due to them. They just want to get a fair wage for a fair day’s work.”
But when she gets back on the topic of the BCCA’s primary purpose, Chenkin reiterates her ironclad belief in the significance of childcare and early childhood development.
“I came out of school not knowing what I was doing. I was a single mother of four kids and child care was extremely important. I didn’t have the best of child care at that time—nobody did. It was hard raising my children without that one component, so I was always interested in the business of child care rather than the care of the child,” she explained. “I always felt it was important to have good child care. So when this company started, I really wanted to hop on the Bright Horizons bandwagon so I could be part of a new wave of child care.”
A later six-year stint working for the United Nations developing child care sites internationally reaffirmed her belief in how crucial it is to help develop young minds. It also sharpened her perspective that these needs she experienced overseas weren’t mutually exclusive to foreign lands.
“I’ve seen the world and I’ve seen poverty and I’ve seen as much poverty here in Elmont. It’s right here in our own backyard, and people forget that you don’t have to travel far to see it,” Chenkin pointed out. “It’s nice to see people making it, trying to make it or having the opportunity to make it in this lifetime. In other parts of the world you feel so helpless and hopeless. Here, I feel like I’m making a difference.”