“This is where I was meant to be”

March 14, 2023

Karen Chavez. (NYRA Photo)

NYRA Cares: The Race Track Chaplaincy’s Karen Chavez

NYRA Press Office

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – In following her older sister to New York from Venezuela, the last thing on the mind of 10-year-old Karen Barros was horse racing.

That was more than three decades ago. Barros, now Chavez, would become a fifth grader and one of two E.S.L. students in her class at Clara H. Carlson Elementary School in Elmont, just wanting to acclimate. Some years later, after Nick Caras of the New York Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America (RTCANY) visited her church looking for volunteers, a teenage Chavez began working on the Belmont Park backstretch – and found her calling.

“When I arrived as a girl, I was going to spend the summer here and see if I could get into school,” said Mrs. Chavez, now the Chaplain’s general manager and married to its Chaplain, Humberto Chavez. “But God her other plans for me. After I began volunteering on the backstretch, it was like puzzle pieces coming together. Looking back today, I realize this is where I was meant to be.”

Those who attended the Chaplaincy’s annual awards luncheon last August in Saratoga, when Mrs. Chavez spoke movingly about her journey, may be familiar with parts of that story. Caras, the Chaplaincy’s program director, said he never tires of hearing her refer to it, citing “Karen’s authentic and deeply moving devotion” to the serving the men and women who look after the horses on New York’s thoroughbred tracks. 

“We’re a team here and Karen is a vital part of it,” said Caras. “What we do on the backstretch and the services we provide are only as good as our people. Karen’s hard work and creativity make us better in all kinds of ways.” 

At the track, Mrs. Chavez felt at home from the get-go, thanks in large part to her sister Lety and brother-in-law Ruben Anez, who as newlyweds had preceded her to New York and found jobs on the backstretch at Belmont Park. To cover Mrs. Chavez’s airfare when she first came to the U.S., Letty took up a collection among co-workers in her barn and raised the funds. 

Her family’s work on the backstretch was Chavez’ introduction to thoroughbred racing. That bond deepened when she began volunteering as a teenager as part of her church’s youth group. When Caras came calling again, this time in 2003 to ask Pastor Chavez if he would consider becoming Chaplain for the backstretch, those puzzle pieces really came together.

“We had a young family at the time and really had our hands full but felt really strongly in our hearts that God wanted us here,” said Mrs. Chavez. “There were a lot of people we needed to serve.”

Pastor Chavez accepted the position, and Mrs. Chavez, with three sons at home, began volunteering all over again, taking a staff position in 2006. “As we began serving with the Chaplaincy,” she said with a laugh, “I realized God had brought me back to the place that brought me to the U.S. in the first place.”

Today, from its building inside Gate 6 at Belmont Park, the Chaplaincy runs several programs for the backstretch community. Among the most enduring is its weekly food pantry, which during the pandemic served an average of 500 families a week. Those numbers have dropped significantly to about 120 families a week, but the need, and the program, remain.

Over 19 years of Women Enrichment at the NY Race Track Chaplaincy. Another summer session comes to a close with an outdoor celebration. So grateful to be a part of this organization!”

Driving some of the Chaplaincy’s programs is a straight-forward philosophy – “seeing a need on the backstretch and responding,” as Mrs. Chavez put it. An example is the summer enrichment program for backstretch children in Saratoga, which started back in 2006 after she and Caras recognized that some backstretch families, at considerable expense, were sending their children to stay with relatives in their home countries during the summer meet. 

Today, children can stay with their families and attend the enrichment Pine Grove Campground in Saratoga, where they’re safely cared for and supervised. Upwards of 30 backstretch families also stay in the recently-renovated cabins at Pine Grove for the meet.

Mrs. Chavez takes particular pride in developing the Chaplaincy’s women’s enrichment and mentoring program, which has helped hundreds of women tackle issues from learning English to providing better nutrition for their families and starting businesses. This month for International Women’s Day, the Chaplaincy hosted a seminar for backstretch women on starting a business. That program has since morphed into separate teen mentoring groups for girls and boys; and the Chaplaincy often steers members of the backstretch community to related Belmont Park-based programs of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) and the Belmont Childcare Association (BCCA).

Belmont’s new NYRTCA center is made possible by private donations, including one by the late Marylou Whitney. (Architects Rendering courtesy NYRA)

Just ahead is the eagerly anticipated opening of the Chaplaincy’s 3,500-square-foot building, which will double the Chaplaincy’s current space and become its hub. A team of New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) carpenters, electricians and plumbers is working on the building, which is expected to open in 2023. It will house a chapel, a multi-purpose room, a classroom to be named after Hall of Famer and longtime NYRTCA supporter Cot Campbell, and staff offices.

After the building opens, the Chaplaincy will continue to utilize the trailers for the weekly food pantry and clothing drive, which are currently held outdoors. A core component of the NYRTCA, the non-denominational services now held at Belmont Park’s recreation hall, will move into a dedicated chapel within the new building.

The founding partners of the new building are the late Marylou Whitney, John Hendrickson, former NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay and his wife Kristine, Michael Dubb, Kenny and Lisa Troutt, West Point Thoroughbreds, Seth A. and Beth S. Klarman, Dogwood Stable, and the Estate of Dolores Ochota.

Thoroughbred owner and NYRA board member Michael Dubb supplied the bulk of all materials for the new Chaplaincy Center. Mr. Dubb is also the founder and chairman of the BCCA at Belmont Park; and he and his wife, Lee, founded Faith’s House, the BCCA childcare center for the backstretch community at Saratoga Race Course, which opened in the summer of 2021.

“Every day, we see the progress of the new building and it’s very exciting,” said Mrs. Chavez. “The new building will allow us to provide the kind of services needed by the backstretch. It’s a community I’ve just grown to love and a place I belong.”

To learn more about the New York Race Track Chaplaincy, visit: https://www.rtcany.org/

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