By Sue Finley
Finding affordable quality day care is a struggle most working parents face, but for parents working on the backstretches of America's racetracks, the combination of low pay and early hours make it even more of a challenge. For years, too many backstretch parents were forced to leave their children in less-than-ideal situations or drive to work at 5 a.m. with their kids sleeping in the back of their car.
But in the late 1990s, after talking to his good friend Jerry Bailey about the situation, Michael Dubb took matters into his own hands and built Anna House, a model day care program for backstretch workers located right in the Belmont barn area.
This past Tuesday, a dozen children graduated from the program, and will head to the local public school system this fall. But the Anna House care doesn't stop there. Early-morning care, breakfast, after-school care, tutoring, summer programs, and literacy programs for parents are all a part of the remarkable and comprehensive system overseen by the Belmont Child Care Association (BCCA).
“Most of the children come from bilingual families, and so we teach them English first and foremost,” said Dubb. “We teach them computer skills. We teach them arts and crafts. We teach them interaction. We teach them gardening. We teach them how to play chess. We teach them how to climb walls. We teach them how to build character and confidence. And it really sets them up for life. These are happy, exuberant kids ready for the challenges that life is going to bring them and ready to excel.”
For the past 10 years, Libby Imperio has served as the President of the BCCA, and oversees fundraising, grants to expand the programs offered, and more.
“I became involved because my husband and I went to their Saratoga fundraiser, Racing for the Children. And they had a wish list asking for diapers, books, changing tables, formula and with the thousands of fundraisers we go to, no one had ever asked me for a specific item before, and it really tugged at my heart. That was the beginning. And I just kept asking, `What can I do? What can I do?'”
Years later, she knows the answer.
Since its inception, Anna House has gone beyond educating preschool children and has expanded its programs to parent literacy, basic childcare, and more.
“I'm so proud of our expansions,” said Imperio. “Our first expansion was after-school tutoring, which we provide to up until 13 years old. Then we took that concept and provided a school-age program, so our graduates and even kids that did not originally attend here who are in elementary school, when they have the day off or school vacation, they have now a safe and healthy and nurturing place to attend. And we have about 20 kids enrolled in that program.”
The BCCA and Dubb built Faith House in Saratoga so that workers relocated for the eight weeks could bring their children knowing they would have a safe place to go for a summer which involves both learning and fun.
They also provide basic life and childcare skills. “We joined with the other backstretch charities, BEST and the Racetrack Chaplaincy to develop `The ABCs of Life' for the mothers of the backstretch,” she said. “That course is teaching things that we all take for granted: how to write a check, nutrition on a low income, basic health and dentistry for children, cooking, and just your basic ABCs of life. But my favorite program has become the women's literacy program. It started out with about just five moms on the backstretch, and we now have about 25 mothers. And it makes me so happy because that just will help not just themselves, but their children as they go forward in life.”
Tuesday's graduation was the 20th time that the Anna House kids left the program to head for the public schools, and Dubb said that some of them were now circling back.
“I've seen familiar faces back here at the racetrack working,” said Dubb. “But one of them, a young child at the racetrack named Angel Torres whose father was an assistant trainer, he was a child of the backstretch, and went on from here to get his college degree. And he's one of the now one of the top financial people at my company.”
Anna House's most important fundraiser is coming up at Saratoga, said Imperio-the very event she attended all those years ago which inspired her involvement. Every year, the BCCA needs to raise $1.7 million for operations.
“Our biggest fundraiser of the year is Racing for the Children, being held in downtown Saratoga August 25th at the Universal Preservation Building (at 25 Washington Street). It's a new location for us this year, so we're really excited about it. I think it will be a beautiful event.”
Dubb said that initially, he saw the need and thought as a builder, he could fix it, and move on.
“When I built this, I really just wanted to donate a building and ride off into the sunset,” he said. “But I couldn't do it. And in 20 years, I'm most proud of the children and I'm most proud of their parents. This is the real American dream. Come here to work hard and to do right by your kids. That's what my grandparents did. And I'm just so happy that I can share my good fortune and make this happen, but it's really not about me. This is the gift that keeps giving to me. It brings me more pleasure than anything else on the racetrack-more pleasure than winning any kind of race. A race is for a moment, but a child's life is for a lifetime. And knowing that we're making a difference, really, that's what really, really drives me.”
To make a donation to Anna House, or to learn more about their upcoming fundraisers, visit www.belmontchildcare.org.
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