On a November afternoon in 2006, I sat at my desk at school, taking a little break from the work of an 11th and 12th grade dean to check the weekday entries at Aqueduct. Maybe I was looking for cat horses; maybe I was trying to figure out which horse to play in the SHOWdown contest; maybe I was looking to see whether anything merited a trip to the OTB a block and a half from my school.
Before I got to the day’s races, though, I was distracted by an image of children with a holiday theme, prominent on the right side of the NYRA homepage. It was my introduction to Anna House and the Belmont Child Care Association.
I clicked, expecting the usual entreaty for toy donations to be given to needy children. Instead, I found a message about the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of giving; it was indeed a call for donations, but not for the children themselves: the BCCA was seeking items for parents and siblings, so that the children might give to their family members on Christmas mornings. It was the event that led to my involvement with Anna House, first as a supporter, then as a volunteer, and now as a board member.
The BCCA holiday party is one of our most popular events; taking place a few weeks before Christmas, it allows the children whose parents work on the backstretch to select gifts for their parents, siblings, and grandparents. The children can pick out one gift for themselves, but their focus at the party is on giving, not receiving; they are thinking of their families, not themselves, when they enter the room bursting with donations of toys, clothing, games, jewelry, and gift cards.
This year’s party will take place in early December, and the New York Racing Association has again graciously donated space for the event that has outgrown Anna House, at which it was initially held. Invitations are extended to all backstretch families, and last year, more than 350 children attended. The event is open only to children who work on the backstretches of the NYRA tracks.
Anna House volunteers serve as helping elves, escorting the children through the room, helping them select gifts, and wrapping, tagging, and bagging the presents that will be placed under the Christmas trees in the homes of the people who take care of the horses every morning, 365 days a year.
The Belmont Child Care Association is currently accepting donations of cash, gifts, and gift cards to help stock our Santa’s workshop; one of our favorite Genaro holiday traditions is the trip to the shops in Saratoga on the day after Thanksgiving, when my parents, my nephews, and I spend the afternoon selecting presents to drop off at Anna House.
Anna House opens at 5 a.m. every single day of the year, Christmas included, providing low-cost child care and early education to the children of backstretch workers; the children range in age from six weeks to five years old, and after graduating, they head off, prepared and bilingual, to local kindergartens. I am proud to be a member of the BCCA board and grateful to the hundreds of people whose donations of time and money make it possible for parents to go to the barns each morning, knowing that their children are safe and cared for.
It’s a little early to start thinking about Christmas, but at Anna House, the holidays come early. Thanks to all the elves who will help bring the holiday and the spirit of giving to the children this year.