SARATOGA SPRINGS - The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association is donating $25,000 to help a downtown Saratoga Springs church build a residence for people in need that will include about two dozen beds set aside for recovering track workers.
The $9 million Mercy House project of Bethesda Episcopal Church on Washington Street will include a 6,000-square-foot space on an upper floor set aside for backstretch workers who are recuperating from injuries or recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.
The horsemen's association announced the donation on Wednesday, and Mercy House announced that the backstretch worker suite will be dedicated to local horse trainer Rick Violette, the long-time president of the association and an advocate for backstretch workers, who died last October after a lengthy battle with lung cancer.
"It really represents a great community-religious partnership to help people," said Paul Ruchames, executive director of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST), a non-profit that helps backstretch workers at New York Racing Association tracks, including Saratoga Race Course.
There are around 2,000 backstretch workers at the track during the summer racing season, and between 250 and 500 workers in the spring and fall, the off-season months when the Oklahoma training track remains open. The BEST team will be providing recovery and counseling services to workers staying at Mercy House.
"It's so important to racing that backstretch workers feel like they are part of the community," said Gordon Boyd, the president of Mercy House, Inc., a separate non-profit organization that is affiliated with the church.
Bethesda Episcopal has been talking about erecting a four-story building for housing those in need for the last five or six years. The plan, which includes putting up a building with similar architecture to the church, already has needed city approvals. Between selling property, fundraising and anticipated bank financing, Boyd hopes to see a groundbreaking on land next to the church this year, with the building opening in 2021.
The $25,000 donation from the horsemen's association will go toward the construction fund, and the association implied there could be more funding coming.
"NYTHA is pleased to support Mercy House's development of accommodations for backstretch workers who are being helped by BEST for counseling, recovery and recuperation," said Joe Appelbaum, president of the horsemen's association board. "We believe that Mercy House will help further BEST's mission, which is meet the health and social welfare needs of the backstretch workers at Saratoga Race Course through alcohol and substance use counseling and other assistance."
In addition to providing temporary housing for track workers, Boyd said Mercy House has agreements with local service agencies to provide temporary housing for domestic violence victims with children; homeless military veterans, including women with children; and people living with mental health and substance abuse disabilities.
"Based on Holy Scripture it is a mission of Bethesda to provide a place of comfort and healing," said the Rev. Marshall Vang, the church's interim rector.
Mercy House will also include a "pay as you are able" cafe operated by a non-profit, and a new parish house for the church.