Editor's note: Last week, the TDN ran a video urging people to donate to the New York Race Track Chaplaincy food pantry, which helps to provide food for the roughly 3,500 people who work with racehorses in New York. It has been viewed over 10,000 times, and the response has been heartwarming. Chaplain Humberto Chavez asked for the opportunity to say thank you. He recorded this podcast with the TDN's Patty Wolfe. Excerpts appear below. Click the play button to hear this as a podcast.
PW: This has been a very busy time for the chaplaincy. You are still out there every day during this coronavirus pandemic. Can you please tell us how the people on the backstretch are doing?
HC: Well, there's still a lot of anxiety, but it's common when you're speaking about a global pandemic. But yet in the midst of COVID-19, I am privileged to get to see men and women that love their job and are very proud of it and that come in every day to take care of these beautiful horses. Last Thursday, I was with somebody explaining as we were distributing food to keep social distance, and then behind them I kept hearing a conversation and one of the gentlemen said, “I am so blessed to be considered to be an essential worker and I get to work and take care of my horses every day.” I was just like, “Wow, this is amazing.”
PW: The food pantry has been one of the most important elements of your work at this time. Can you tell us how that's going and when it is operating?
HC: It sure has been the main focus for the New York Chaplaincy in the Northeast and in New York racing. We're open once a week on Thursday to the public and to the families of the backstretch and everybody else for mass distribution. We start very early just to make sure our deliveries are going well and we open shop at 10 o'clock in the morning, and we run it through one o'clock in the afternoon. We have a small crew that has been on point and getting deliveries and giving out everything that we get and we purchase that day. Last week we had about 12 to 13 pallets from various places and we gave them all out. On the other days, our pantry has focused on organizing and making sure that all our quarantined individuals get a care package with food and their necessities.
PW: You're on site, and you're also providing meals to those quarantined. Can you tell us about that?
HC: At a peak, we had about 90 individuals in quarantine and that might be because they're self-quarantined or they were told to quarantine due to the clinic guidance. But our numbers have gone down since and we hope they continue to go down. Keeping these folks healthy and meals provided has been a real task for us because we've never done that before. Our crew makes every effort to put a little bit of everything in these packages. A cooked meal, a cooked breakfast, obviously some comfort food as well, some chocolates, and other needed essential like fruits and hydrating drinks.
PW: In addition to the work you're doing on the ground, which we just talked about, can you tell us about the communications you keep up via text, phone calls, social media, email?
HC: Our daily calls have reached numbers that we've never come across, whether it's just Saratoga or keeping in touch with the folks who are on the farms. We make calls daily just to make sure that those that are in quarantine are being taken care of. And not only that, we also make various phone calls to folks who are unemployed, folks that need to change their appointments for any particular reason, whether it's Social Security or a court date. We try to stay connected with those individuals.
We also express the messages that the NYRA and our elected officials have communicated to us through various ways, social media being one, via mass text or a voice message to their phones. We also have a team that focuses on those who have COVID and just for us to make sure that their families are well.
PW: In normal times, you help facilitate contact with government agencies and racing organizations and you yourself provide translation services. I imagine there's more of a need of all of that right now.
HC: Various questions come our way now via phone, via text, via social media, people from other countries saying, “Hey, I'm going to Belmont, what do I need to do?” Or a question that we just dealt with in the morning, “Where's my green card?” So many of those questions are coming our way. We're trying to facilitate some answers or get them the real answer that they're looking for during these times.
We also do a lot of translation and that comes in various ways. Before they would come in and show their documents, but a lot of it has changed to: take a picture, we'll translate it for you and we'll send it to you. But we're here to just to lend a hand to everybody else.
PW: That's really great work at a time now where people are inside and can't go stand on lines for all the things they need to do. As chaplain, you provide comfort to those who need emotional support whenever that arises. A pandemic must multiply this need. How are people doing?
HC: They're doing well. Like I mentioned before, I think the anxiety levels are high, and not knowing what's going to happen next. Obviously, it's always a question in the midst of a global pandemic. So this affects everybody. Not only here in New York, even the countries that most of our folks are from.
And obviously media has really put New York as epicenter. But other than that, other than that, other than the big picture, I think just speaking from being boots on the ground, we're doing well and I think we have a good team of individuals that NYRA has put together to develop this task force through the New York Thoroughbred Horseman Association, through the best program in the backstretch, for us to maintain and grab a hold of what's going on and to bring some type of peace in the midst of chaos. And that's what we're doing. We're really focusing on that.
PW: That is a great feeling, I'm certain, and you're mentioning some really good partners in BEST, and NYTHA and NYRA, and the TDN readers who responded to our video.
HC: I'm grateful and I don't want to cry because I'm a sometimes a crier. But I am grateful upon all the love that many folks within the readers of TDN has shown the backstretch community specifically here in New York. And every single time I've seen individuals pick up their box of food or come out here and leave our office with some answers, some positive answers. I look back and I say, “Man we do this because of them.” And thanks to TDN obviously; their readers are a huge partner during this time of epidemic.
So I thank you so much from the bottom of my heart and that just doesn't come from the bottom on my heart. It comes from the backstretch heart to you guys on what you're doing.
PW: How may people continue to help you? And how may they continue to help the members of the backstretch?
HC: You could still continue to support us and support what we're doing here. Just to give you an example, as I look out my office, there are four people making 32 bags for backstretch individuals who are quarantined. And you can still continue to help by going to our website to www.rtcany.org and give whatever amount that God puts in your heart to give and support what we're doing here in New York.