An apartment is located at the top of the exterior stairs. | Photo by James Natsis

Churchill Downs is a historic and institutional icon of Louisville. It is the home of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks horse races. Attendance records for both the Derby and Oaks have been broken in recent years, and the track will host the 2018 Breeders’ Cup in early November for the eighth time since the race’s inception in 1984.

The track is completing a $32 million renovation of parking, entrance pavilion and transportation options that’ll be finished by Derby, and the Kentucky Derby Museum will undergo a $6.5 million renovation and expansion beginning after the Derby.

Well-known television and movie stars, sports figures, politicians and even the Queen of England have attended the Derby and Oaks over the years. But behind the scenes are the more than 1,000 hardworking, dedicated men and women who maintain the backside of the track and make all of the above possible.

A Community Centerpiece
The Backside Learning Center | Photo by James Natsis

The backside of Churchill Down is located along South Fourth Street and Longfield Avenue across from the grandstands and the track.

From late March to November, it is a bustling community made up of workers who provide the support system that has everything to do with maintaining 1,500 horses stabled on the grounds during this time.

This includes grooms, trainers and their assistants, exercise riders, hot-walkers, security, laundry, maintenance and many other jobs. Support also is needed for the 600 or so workers who reside on the grounds in dormitories or in tack room apartments located in the barns above the stables.

During the winter months, while the workers head south to tracks and training centers in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Florida, many of the workers’ families remain in Louisville — where they have taken root in the community and the children attend local schools.

A centerpiece linking the workers, the workers’ families and the greater metro community is the Backside Learning Center. Established in 2004, the goal of the center is to build community and enrich the lives of equine workers and families by providing the educational opportunities and resources they need to empower themselves and their children.

“We are very involved with family services over the winter,” said Backside Learning Center director Sherry Stanley.

According to Stanley, about 80 percent of the nearly 1,000 workers are Hispanic, with the majority of them hailing from Guatemala.

“Many are part of the community,” she said. “Their kids go to our schools — they aren’t just here and leaving.”

An important role of the Backside Learning Center — beyond providing direct service to the workers and their families — is to increase public awareness of the backside community’s contribution to the economy, culture and diversity of the city.

Working with the Hispanic community has been a dream job for Stanley, who joined the organization in 2013.

Backside Learning Center director Sherry Stanley with Family Education Program assistant Mariah Levine Garcia. | Photo by James Natsis

She spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador from 1996-98. After a two-year stint back in the states, she returned to El Salvador, where she resided from 2000-06 and gave birth to her first child.

From El Salvador, the Indiana native returned to the U.S. and landed a job as an assistant director of the Kentucky Office of Refugees, where she remained until she was hired at her current position as director of the center.

“I feel like I have the best job in the world,” said Stanley, who recognized the opportunity the job would offer given her combined background with the nonprofit experience and her love of working with the Hispanic community. It also reminds her of her time in the Peace Corps, “where you know everyone and everyone knows you,” she said, noting it’s not always like that in many work environments.

Education is a two-way street
The recently offered Pre-K class at Kenwood is growing rapidly. | Photo by James Natsis

The Backside Learning Center provides services during the offseason winter months primarily at its satellite location at the Kenwood Baptist Church.

It is located just a few blocks away from Churchill Downs at the corner of Third Street and Southern Parkway, which is convenient for most families who live nearby and who often lack their own means of transportation.

The center offers a range of services and times at its Kenwood satellite. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, children can receive assistance with their homework while their parents may attend English-language classes.

On Wednesday afternoons, they alternate programs in cooking and nutrition. And on Saturday evenings, classes are offered for children from sixth grade and older.

A typical Tuesday or Thursday evening at Kenwood brings together 60 to 70 children and adults who participate in classes. The atmosphere is lively and projects a warmth and comfort one finds among a group of people who enjoy being among themselves. Although learning is the central theme, community and friendship naturally emerges from the process.

“Big horses here,” said Salvia, who is a regular at the Advanced English class at Kenwood. She is a native of Mexico and works at the track as a hot-walker seven days a week from 4:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Her colleague, Berta, originally from Guatemala, works the same daily schedule as a groom.

They were both raised around animals as youth in their respective native countries, but said the horses back home are much smaller than the thoroughbreds they work with at Churchill Downs.

The Advanced English class is led by Arianna Cespedes del Toro, an English language program assistant for the Backside Learning Center. Cespedes del Toro also is using this opportunity to do her internship as an ESL instructor for the Family Learner Program as part of her senior year requirement for her English major at University of Louisville.

She is strict about using only English in her class, and the group laughs about the dynamics this creates. The class of mainly women is joined by Luis, who works at a hotel downtown. His colleagues joked about how they seat him in the middle of the elongated table directly between all of them. Luis was happy to be among them and to have the opportunity to improve his English and be around friends.

The Adult Beginning English class at Kenwood. | Photo by James Natsis

Mariah Levine Garcia graduated from UofL in May 2017. She began working at the Backside Learning Center in August, first as a part-time employee, but now as a full-time Family Education Program Assistant.

Garcia works with families at the Kenwood satellite location helping kids with their homework, and developing socio-emotional and leadership skills that they may not get in school or at home.

She also focuses on areas of responsibility, problem solving and just generally developing into well-rounded people.

“I never specifically envisioned myself working with kids,” she admitted. “But now I’m just smitten.” She recognizes that at times, it is difficult, and kids are often very needy. “But I always leave with just my heart full.”

Stanley and her staff encourage people to volunteer in tutoring, teaching children and adults, and helping out with some of the fundraising events such as the annual Day at the Races and this year’s Breeders’ Cup event that is still in the planning stages.

It is a wonderful opportunity to get involved in the lives of the workers and their families, to help them integrate into the Louisville community, and to practice a little Spanish while making friendships along the way.

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James J. Natsis is a faculty member of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and the Coordinator of the International Studies degree program at West Virginia State University. He has chaired several committees on campus, and was appointed to the West Virginia Commission on International Education created by Governor Bob Wise in May 2003 that led to the creation of the WV Higher Education Policy Commission Internationalization Committee on which he served as a steering committee member for a number of years. He worked as a language assistant in a public French lycée in France for a year, is a former Peace Corp volunteer who served for two years in Chad, Sub-Saharan Africa, conducted his doctoral research in North Africa, and traveled the length of South America for 10½ months overland by backpack. He holds a BA degree in French, an MA in International Affairs—African Studies, and the Ph.D. in International Education from Ohio University. He has published a monograph, journal and special interest articles, a number of op-eds, and presented papers at many regional and national conferences. He first started writing as a guest writer for Insider Louisville in December 2013.He has directed grant projects in Benin, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the Czech Republic and served as external evaluator to a project in the Ivory Coast. He has also led student trips to Quebec, Canada for a number of years. He is fluent in French and Spanish and speaks several other languages. Dr. Natsis and his wife, Kenya, reside in Louisville and have two young boys, Ashton and Aidan.