Behind the scenes at Churchill Downs: Jeri Howell ’16 interns with Backside Learning Center
Few places are as closely associated with Kentucky history and culture as Churchill Downs, which has hosted the annual Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks thoroughbred races since its opening in 1865.
Many of the workers behind the scenes at the racetrack, however, come from places far away from the Bluegrass State. In recent decades, immigration has impacted the Kentucky horse industry, and today’s equine workers in the backside barns at the Downs are more likely to hail from Latin America than Louisville.
Jeri Howell, a Spanish major at Centre College, is spending her summer getting to know some of these workers through an internship at the Backside Learning Center (BLC), a non-profit organization created to enhance the lives of backside workers at Churchill Downs through education, life skill resources and community-building.
The rising junior first encountered the BLC as a high school participant in the Governor’s Scholars Program, at the time held on Centre’s campus. As part of the program, Howell took a Spanish language and Hispanic culture course from Centre’s Associate Professor of Spanish Genny Ballard, who took the students to the BLC.
“I was impressed and moved by the mission of the BLC,” says Howell, whose experience prompted her to focus on immigrant education issues for her high school senior project.
Her interest in immigration persisted after enrolling at Centre, where she has worked with the College’s After School Program, a tutoring service for immigrant and migrant children.
Howell is also part of the Bonner Scholars Program, a national initiative that encourages college student involvement in community service and social justice issues. Her current internship at the BLC is considered a Bonner “Summer of Service,” and she will receive college credit for her work under the supervision of Assistant Professor of History Stephen Dove. Howell credits Dove with helping foster her personal and academic interests in Latin America.
At the BLC, Howell’s duties include developing educational and activity-based family programming for backside workers. She also tutors workers in English, organizes community-building events and teaches an acoustic guitar class.
“The workers often do not have a regular support system since most left their families in their home country,” she says. “They face intense feelings of isolation, because they work long hours year-round, conduct hard labor and are focused on earning an income to support their families.”
In addition to providing English classes and tutoring, the BLC offers computer classes and services, citizenship classes, GED tutoring and a variety of other educational and social services.
Sherry Stanley, director of the Backside Learning Center, says that interns at the BLC have the unique opportunity to experience the backside community at Churchill Downs. “All the interns and volunteers who have had the opportunity to work here have had their lives changed in some way by the experience.”
She also notes that interns fill an important role in the BLC’s work. “We are a small organization with only two full-time staff,” says Stanley, “so it’s helpful for us to have more people around to attend to backside workers who come to us for different needs. It’s also nice to have the new energy and ideas that interns bring.”
“The workers who attend the center are some of the most kind-hearted and driven people I have ever met,” says Howell. “The courage and humility that these people possess is incredible as they continuously strive to better their lives, even in the face of many hardships.”
Howell notes that her experiences in Centre study abroad programs in Mexico and Guatemala helped prepare her for the work she is doing this summer.
“Not only did my Spanish improve, which enables me to converse fluidly with the students at the center, but also I met so many people in Mexico and Guatemala with family in the U.S. and began to understand more about the other side of immigration—the families left behind,” she says.
Immigration is a charged issue, admits Howell, who is interested in a career in immigrant services or nonprofit management.
“No doubt, it is exciting and interesting to me, in part, because of the controversy,” she says. “However, I feel that it is incredibly important to place ourselves in immigrants’ positions. No matter your stance on immigration, it’s positive and powerful to view people not for their immigration status, but as people, and to help one another accordingly.”
by Laurie Pierce