Summer students at the F. Donald Myers Education Center spent some time Monday morning behind the scenes at Saratoga Race Course, where backstretch tour groups mix with horses being ridden to exercise.
They have a bigger stake than most tour group visitors, though, because they’ve been working all summer on projects to help out the people in the track’s backstretch community.
More than 100 students enrolled in the BOCES special and alternative education program at the Myers Center have been cooking food, collecting and sorting toys and clothing and otherwise trying to help the backstretch workers and their families.
“People are really grateful,” said Idlefonso Apelanz, an English as a second language teacher who delivers the collected items. “We go around and tell people they are from BOCES. People are really happy, not to mention the food is delicious.”
The students, enrolled in the summer special and alternative education program, are learning academic lessons and life skills and carrying out the summer school’s theme of “Give Back.”
For BOCES teachers, it’s the first summer they have asked students to reach out and show thanks to the greater Saratoga community, a form of repayment to the many businesses that support BOCES’ vocational training programs throughout the year.
“We thought it would be good to give something back to the community,” said Maureen Forsyth, a social worker at the Myers Center.
Through Maureen Clancy, a BOCES chef who also cooks for track workers after the thoroughbred meet ends on Labor Day, the connections were made to donate items to the backstretch workers, hundreds of whom work long hours for low pay at Saratoga.
In the process, the students are learning about compassion, trust, sharing and the value of giving to others.
“I sew pillows and stuff pillows,” said student Michelle Keefe, 16, of Salem, Washington County. “It makes me feel good.”
The summer students, who come from all five counties served by the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES, are learning by doing. They take away math and science lessons from cooking food that is delivered to the workers, and they are writing about their experiences.
“It makes me feel joyful,” student Isaac Newman, 17, of Mechanicville, wrote on a bulletin board where students are posting their feelings.
Kim Ferguson, one of the teachers involved in the program, said her students — ages 15 to 18 — are learning the “soft skills” that will help them be good employees and valuable members of society in the future.
“It’s helping the students connect with the community and promoting the valuable skill of being thoughtful toward others,” she said.
Once a week since early July, Apelanz, the English as second language program coordinator with the Latino Advocacy program of the Saratoga Economic Opportunity Council, has picked up the donations at the Myers Center and takes them to track workers. It started with preparing food for snacks for the ESL class, but the volume of donations has grown week by week, and has even required two trucks some weeks.
“Every time I go, I have to make sure my car is empty. There’s a lot of stuff,” Apelanz said.
The salads and baked goods such as brownies go to the Latino backstretch workers studying English, with the leftovers distributed to other track workers. The clothing and toys are delivered to and distributed through the Racetrack Chaplaincy on Union Avenue across from the race course, which helps meet the basic needs of workers and their families.
The students are also creating a paper quilt that is covered with supportive messages to the workers, such as “Take care of yourself as well as you take care of the horses.”
Summer school students spend half their day in classrooms and the other half working in a local business like the Holiday Inn.
Forsyth said many businesses in the Saratoga area provide work experience or make donations to help BOCES students throughout the year. She predicted some form of community service, either to track workers or someone else, will be part of future BOCES summer programs.
“It’s good to know we have the resources to give something back to the community,” she said.