Talking about my job is difficult. It’s difficult to describe what the Backside Learning Center does, who we serve, and, more significantly, why we’re around, in the neat, concise, polished way I feel people expect when they want to know what I do. When they ask, I want to talk about our emphasis on education, the horse racing industry, what the backside is, where it is, the 1000 workers that migrate with the horses wherever the industry leads them – most of them coming from rural areas of Latin American countries, the 600 or so who live in the barn area, or backside, of Churchill Downs, the need for them to learn English and the obstacles that hinder their progress with the language, the families who have taken root here in Louisville and have entrusted us to help them help their kids be successful in the US.
There are so many features of this place to highlight, but the eloquent line I want to repeat when I am asked to talk about what I do often comes out fractured and urgent – Urgent, because I lack the time for fundraising and volunteer coordination at the Backside Learning Center, a nonprofit located on the backside of Churchill Downs. I want to get across the importance of the BLC’s existence- that it’s a home- but even more so, the importance of the individuals working in the horse racing industry, and the need for people to know about them, to be involved in helping them reach their highest potential, to understand the obstacles they and their kids hurdle over daily, and to care about their lives in Louisville, KY- their new home.
Unfortunately, I can never do it justice – I can never explain everything. So, I relate the story of one our participants in hopes that it will convey everything I cannot:
Marta is a groom in a barn, where she’s worked for close to 14 years under a Hall of Fame Thoroughbred horse trainer, who’s won the Kentucky Derby. Her day begins at 4 am every morning- even on weekends. She works with the horses- caring for them, getting them ready to train, cleaning them and their stalls until 11 am. After, she goes home to her teenage daughter. Then she returns to work at 3 PM for the afternoon feeding and to clean the stalls. After finishing her job at 5 PM, Marta goes home and gets ready to attend English class at the Backside Learning Center from 5:30 to 7 PM bringing her daughter along to get help with homework or to volunteer.
Marta’s daily routine began in 2003 after moving to the United States from Guatemala. She has worked in the industry since she got here. In Guatemala, Marta spent her childhood days playing with her siblings and friends when she wasn’t working or going to school. She lived on a farm where they cared for many animals including cows and horses, and grew lemons, coffee, avocados, radishes, oranges, corn and beans. Marta attended school for four or five years before having to stay home to help maintain the family’s farm.
Her move to the U.S. was also done to help – to give her family a better life. In Guatemala, Marta left behind her parents, siblings, and her son. Because of their economic situation, Marta left her son with her parents when he was little to seek out a way to help them financially. Her decision to move has helped both her children have more opportunities. “Leaving,” she says, “was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but I believe it was the best decision. Every two days I talk to my son. My parents have done a very good job with him. I feel I’ve done a good job.” her son is now attending university in Guatemala, and her daughter is starting her sophomore year of high school and working to get into college – both opportunities possible because of their mother’s sacrifice.
Marta and her daughter have been dedicated participants of the Backside Learning Center’s Family Education Program since its beginning. Now in the Advanced English class, Marta is a motivated student whose strong and determined personality shines – qualities she has passed on to her daughter. Both of them – and many people like them – make the Backside Learning Center into the home that it is.
Written by Blanca Ruiz, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at the Backside Learning Center