by Katie Ritz
It’s three days before Christmas, a time when most young Americans can be found lounging on the couch binging on Netflix and cookies, but Merlin Cano is busy on the backside of Churchill Downs.
Most of the trainers have already packed up and headed for warmer climates. A few trucks roll by carrying used straw or unused hay, remnants of the hive of activity this backstretch was just a few weeks ago. All is quiet for now, but Merlin knows there is still much to be done.
Merlin is a member of the team at the Backside Learning Center– an organization located on the Churchill Downs backside that serves as a resource center for the equine backstretch community, providing educational programs and services and promoting community amongst the backstretch workers and their families.
At 20 years old and around a hundred pounds, Merlin loads up the BLC’s van to the brim with holiday gift baskets filled with blankets, fruits, gift cards, coats and more. She heads out to Oakdale Avenue to journey through the streets of downtown Louisville.
She knows the roads surrounding the track like the back of her hand and soon arrives at the house of Angelica Solano and her four children. The family receives new shoes for each of the children along with food for a holiday feast.
When asked what the BLC has done for her family, Solano replied, “The Backside Learning Center has helped me translate the letters and mail I receive. I’m thankful because they have supported my kids with homework and they’ve provided us with several food distributions. They’re always making sure we’re doing okay and helping us with whatever we need.”
After loading back into the van and navigating around a construction detour, Merlin arrives at the home of Uriel and Sandra.
The Backside Learning Center has helped us in many ways…They are providing so much help for the Hispanic community here.”
–Uriel, BLC gift basket recipient
After the couple receives their holiday dinner supplies, they are also asked of how the BLC has helped their family.
“The Backside Learning Center has helped us in many ways,” Uriel said. “They help us with problems we cannot resolve like with paperwork. They are providing so much help for the Hispanic community here. We work with a tutor that the BLC provided. We’ve realized the tutor is helping us, especially with English, and we are very pleased with her.”
Sandra added, “Now that the kids are back in school, the BLC helps the kids with virtual schooling and homework, no matter their course load. We are so grateful for all the help they’ve provided us.”
After she has completed the holiday deliveries for the day, Merlin is able to go back to her family to celebrate Christmas.
Over the past few years, the Churchill Downs backstretch has become her home away from home. In high school, if she wasn’t in class or working her part-time job at the local Wal-Mart, she could be found on the backstretch.
Merlin immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was 11. Her family planted roots in Louisville, her father starting a job as a groom.
A few years later, due to either the ubiquitous attraction between a young girl and a horse, the desire for a daughter to follow in her father’s footsteps, or simply the fact that she lived across the street from those towering twin spires, Merlin took on a job as a hot walker for trainer Paul McGee.
She immediately fell in love with the horses and the community that made up the backstretch of Churchill Downs.
“In the summer when I wasn’t going to school, I was working in the mornings with the horses,” she said. “Whenever I was in school I was working on Saturdays and Sundays. The trainer gave me the opportunity and I really wanted to try everything because I love horses.”
While working on the backside, Merlin learned about the Backside Learning Center. The organization was housed in the old racing offices located directly across the track from the twin spires.
Although she was already nearly proficient in English, she knew learning the language could be a momentous opportunity for her parents.
“Since my dad worked here on the track, he and my mom decided to come,” she recalled. “I decided to accompany them here. I already understood a lot of English but I was just there to support them.”
While attending language classes at the center with her family, Merlin learned that she could become a volunteer for the organization’s youth program.
The Backside Learning Center does a lot for the kids. They have impacted a lot of families in positive ways and have helped them in really tough times.” –Merlin Cano
She signed up for a volunteer role with the BLC, but the juggling act between her studies, her job as a hot walker and the job at Wal-Mart proved to be difficult until one day, she got a call from the BLC team.
“At the time, they were assisting me in applying to become a citizen, and one day they called me and I thought the call had something to do with that. But they actually were calling to offer me a part-time job here. They asked if I wanted to quit Wal-Mart to work here. I said, ‘Yeah, I do,’” she recalled with a laugh.
Merlin graduated from high school last year and was able to maintain her part-time position as the BLC’s Youth Activities Leader, a job that allows her to focus on the two things that have become most dear to her– horses and her community.
“I love the kids and the Backside Learning Center does a lot for the kids,” she said. “They have impacted a lot of families in positive ways and have helped them in really tough times.”
The past year has unquestionably qualified as a tough time for Merlin’s community.
The entire team at the BLC has been working overtime since March. The organization’s executive director Sherry Stanley said that they had to refocus their mission of assisting the community through education to helping families get by on a day-to-day basis.
“Like everywhere else, everything has changed with COVID,” Stanley said. “When everything began in March, it was announced that the opening of the track here was going to be delayed. For a lot of people that work here, that meant they were going to be unemployed, so there was a lot of financial hardship as people were waiting for the horses to come back.”
The team found that food distributions were the best methods for providing for those families.
“We were really just serving whatever need came to us in that moment, so we did food distributions,” Stanley said. “We’ve continued to do them throughout this time and we’re going to continue as long as we need to because it’s a really important economic support for our families.”
“We work with Dare To Care and they report to certain restaurants,” added the BLC’s Operations and Programs Support Specialist Karla Villa. “We get weekly donations from restaurants and it’s usually vegetables, sometimes bread and sometimes chicken. We never know what we’re going to get but it’s always really good and our families really appreciate it.”
On top of food distributions, the organization has kept their community up to date on the pandemic and has distributed around 10,000 masks since March.
With the help of the Thoroughbred industry, the BLC has also helped assist backstretch families through emergency cash assistance.
“We received funding through Thoroughbred Charities of America and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association,” Stanley said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from the industry for families to be able to pay rent and we’ve also helped people access funding through the CARES Act.”
When school reopened for the children in the community, the BLC was able to a make their Community Learning Hub available to a select group.
“We have about 40 kids that come to our center which is off site,” Stanley said. “It’s not here on the track since kids aren’t allowed here so we rent space from a church a couple of miles away. We do both in-person and virtual tutoring.”
Stanley said that virtual learning has been a huge challenge for the backstretch families for several reasons but mainly because many of the parents have felt helpless in assisting their children.
“Anyone that has had experience with virtual learning knows it’s a huge challenge,” she said. “But we have a lot of parents who don’t speak English or who have very limited education and they are really limited with how much they can help their kids. So we’re trying to support them so the kids don’t fall behind too much.”
Merlin added that teaching the children how to use the technology required for their classes has been a main focus in recent months.
“We haven’t been able to do much in person, but we’ve been limiting the number of kids we could allow in our classroom and since a lot of them don’t know how to use the computer, we are doing our best to support them with that and I think we have taught them a few things.”
Merlin said that the winter season–the time when the backside is nearly deserted–proves to be the most difficult for her community.
“In the wintertime all of the horses leave so a lot of moms stay here alone with their kids,” she said. “Right now with the pandemic, finding jobs is hard, especially with kids. And now with the cold, transportation is also a big thing they struggle a lot with.”
“Right now, we’re actively serving somewhere around one hundred families,” Stanley noted. “We’re really trying to prioritize the families who have the greatest need in providing different levels of gifts and deliveries over the winter. Hopefully we can give them a little bit of hope and happiness going into the holidays with something that will brighten their day.
Those gift baskets that Merlin helped distribute did just that.
I feel really proud to be working here at my age….Because I work with the horses, I feel like I’m helping support my community and they’re also supporting me.” –Merlin Cano
As soon as the holiday season is over, Merlin says she and a friend plan on taking a road trip to visit Fair Grounds for the first time; not to work, but just to fulfill a curious mind that longs to be filled with horse racing.
She has been to Keeneland before and said she hopes to someday visit Saratoga. She says she wants to learn to exercise ride soon; she just needs someone to teach her.
Once training at Churchill Downs begins again this spring, she’ll go back to working with the horses. But for now, she looks forward to joining the BLC’s team on a full-time basis.
“I’m going to start full-time with them after the new year,” she said with a bright smile. “I don’t know if it will be permanent whenever the horses come back; I might go part-time here and part-time with the horses.”
Wherever Merlin ends up, the Backside Learning Community will always be a part of who she is.
“The BLC has helped me in a lot of ways,” she said. “I feel really proud to be working here at my age. I have learned a lot and I like how much they do for my community too. Because I work with the horses, I feel like I’m helping them support my community and they’re also supporting me, so it’s really great.”
Feature Image Credit: Horsephotos