Cate Dolan recalls the Mexican backstretch worker who grieved so much when his father died that he sought counseling.
Thousands of miles away working at New York’s thoroughbred racetracks, the man hadn’t been able to spend time with his father during his last days or attend the funeral.
He briefly turned to alcohol to soothe his pain, but didn’t like drinking and ended up seeking help from Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST) counselors.
Not many backstretch workers do that — to most, the isolation of their traveling jobs is a part of life they bear on their own, said Dolan, president of BEST, which offers various services to backstretch workers at the New York Racing Association’s thoroughbred tracks at Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct.
“I had talked to a couple of guys last fall when they were getting ready to leave for the season who hadn’t seen their kids in a year and a half,” said Julie Cobello, BEST community liaison at Saratoga.
Workers usually seek help for other problems that loneliness and isolation cause, such as alcoholism, Dolan said.
“In our country, we generally tend to look at [alcoholism] as an illness. In the case of the backstretch workers, we tend to look at it a little more as a symptom — that people turn to drugs or alcohol because they’re lonely or depressed or anxious,” she said.
About 35 workers a month get counseling for various issues.
beds and dentistry
This year, BEST will offer backstretch workers a chance to call home for free, sleep on a real bed and get necessary dental work.
Cobello, who started at BEST as a volunteer last year and was hired part time in January, started the three initiatives to make backstretch workers’ lives a little easier, whether they’re here for the six-month training season or only for the six-week racing meet. She’s the first year-round BEST employee in Saratoga.
Thanks to her, Saratoga is leading the way with the beds, communications center and dental clinic initiatives, which don’t yet exist at NYRA’s two downstate tracks, Aqueduct and Belmont, Dolan said.
“It’s a very different environment downstate. There isn’t the same focus on the track in Queens or Elmont as there is up in Saratoga Springs.” Dolan hopes the communications center and the dental clinic can be mobile enough to move them to NYRA’s other tracks during the winter.
Living conditions are about the same at all three tracks, Dolan said.
“I think everybody recognizes that conditions aren’t optimal.” Most of the backstretch workers sleep on the floor on air mattresses or regular mattresses they bring with them, Cobello said. “They never complain. This is just the way it is.”
Most people bring their own blankets and bedding, and donated bedding fills the rest of the need.
Besides being uncomfortable and cold during the cooler months, that arrangement also puts people at risk for getting spider bites, Dolan said.
So Cobello decided she wanted to make wooden bed frames for the 1,100 men and women who live at Saratoga Race Course every year. “I just came up with this idea and said, ‘We’re going to do this. How can we do it?’ ”
Adirondack Trust Co. is sponsoring the project to build 800 wooden bed frames, which will be branded with BEST’s and Adirondack Trust’s logo at “bed build days” to which volunteers are invited to help on the assembly line. Area colleges are donating 300 beds.
BEST hosted its first bed build day last month. The next is being held on Saturday. at the Race Course.
Volunteers are needed.
In addition to health and comfort, the bed frames also give the workers needed storage space underneath the beds.
“The whole idea is that this community has benefitted forever from the racetrack and the hard work of these people goes unnoticed,” Cobello said.
connecting to home
The Communications Center in the backstretch recreation center will be open when the center is open, and people will be able to sign up for a time slot when they can use the Internet or make telephone calls using Skype. Time Warner Cable is installing the hardware, Cobello said.
“We’re really excited about it, because we’ve been trying to get Internet on the backstretch for a long time.” The center will be monitored by staff and volunteers, Cobello said. “I’ve compiled a pretty good list of people who are interested in helping.” This month, BEST is starting an on-site dental clinic for backstretch workers who now have to be treated at Hometown Health Clinic in Schenectady. The clinic at Saratoga will operate out of BEST’s medical clinic a couple of days a week, Cobello said.
Two local dentists will provide cleanings, do fillings and simple extractions, she said, declining to give the dentists’ names. Dental surgery will still have to happen off-site.
She thinks the dental clinic will be well-received. “They’re more willing to go to a dentist than they are a doctor,” Cobello said of backstretch workers. “They don’t understand the right to be healthy. But they do know what a toothache is like.” Other initiatives are also in the works for this year.
dinner for 1,500
John Hendrickson, husband of Saratoga socialite Marylou Whitney and a future member of the reconstituted NYRA board, has stepped up to sponsor backstretch appreciation dinners on Sunday nights during the summer meet.
Each dinner will have a theme and feed about 1,500 people, Dolan said.
Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Thanksgiving and barbecue are among the themes planned for the dinners, Cobello said.
BEST will need volunteers to set up tables and chairs on the dinner nights.
Hendrickson also plans to sponsor movie nights five nights a week, Dolan said. “I know he’s got an industrial popcorn maker in mind.” On a more serious note, BEST wants to start educating workers about washing, keeping cuts clean and keeping bathroom and kitchen facilities separate.
“We will talk about the most basic hygiene, but we will also talk about cleanliness-based medical conditions,” Dolan said.
She related the story of a man who was treated at the clinic for a boil on his hip. “He never came back, and then we found out that he had been admitted to the [intensive care unit] with a staph infection,” Dolan said. “If they don’t come back into the clinic, we will have people who go out into the grounds and connect with them to make sure they’re OK.”
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