BY JIM WELLS
What do the children of Canterbury Park’s stable area employees do during the summer months, when their parents are training and attending to the needs of the track’s 1,400 horses?
In the past, they mainly hung out, without much of anything creative or stimulating on their agendas. This summer they are working on crafts, swimming, playing soccer, learning water safety, health techniques and mingling with other kids their ages from Shakopee as part of the Esperanza program.
Canterbury Park and the local Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association have pitched in to open up creative, positive opportunities for youngsters who otherwise would be left to their own devices during the hours their parents are tending to the horses and stables on the track’s backside.
The children of the track’s trainers and stable area employees are the latest to connect to Esperanza,a program that reaches out to Shakopee area youngsters, providing them with transportation and various activities during the week, in addition to free breakfast and/or lunch on the days of participation.
Esperanza, in the words of its director, Mary Hernandez, is the manifestation of what it takes to raise children in a positive environment _ a “village” of cooperation between Shakopee Community Education, the Rotary, the Lions, New Creation Church, the local YMCA, St. Joseph’s Hospital/Allina, now Canterbury, and in the coming months perhaps even the Shakopee Police Department.
Canterbury’s chaplaincy offered a program for stable-area children during the last two summers but has been looking to provide additional activities. “We had a theater company come in the last two summers for 3 ½ hours once a week but it simply wasn’t enough,” said Canterbury chaplain Ed Underwood.
When the HBPA’s Patrice Underwood, Ed’s wife, began contacting sources in Shakopee about putting something together she was told that the program she sought already existed.
Once the dots were connected, Canterbury had opportunities for its youngsters four days a week and also began entertaining youngsters from the Shakopee community who have put vacant land near the training track and outside the chapel to use as soccer grounds, for basic science projects and crafts.
Many of them had never been to Canterbury before. “Their mothers and fathers don’t have transportation for them or simply can’t take time out from work,” Hernandez explained. Canterbury provided them with tickets for their families, something the children thought was “really cool.”
Allina and St. Francis are significant contributors to the program, the YMCA donates pool time and offers free swimming lessons and water safety. Cub Foods has donated food, the Shakopee Parks and Recreation Department has waived the fees on its soccer fields and offers reduced rates at the community pool. The school district offers reduced rates for busing the children from one location to the next. The buses are not allowed on private grounds, however, so the Underwoods have organized to-and-from car-pooling to various sites from Canterbury. Valley Sports has donated t-shirts with the Esperanza logo for the children who participate in the program. The Shakopee police department added a position this year Chief Jeff Tate hopes to see aligned in some way with the program.
Some 110 children, ages 3 to 11, registered for the program this summer which features reading, crafts, and instruction for safety while home alone. Another 50 to 75 youngsters 12 to 18 are registered in the soccer programs.
Esperanza reports that gang initiations and recruitment are less prevalent in the schools and community since the program’s initiation, that police report less gang activity and that the academic achievement gap between Hispanics and Anglos in Shakopee Public Schools has been cut in half.
Tate says that it’s difficult to “quantify” exactly how much impact the program has had in reduction of gang recruitment but there have been positive signs. “I can say this,” he said. “This is an enormously positive program for the community. Since Esperanza we don’t see nearly as much Latino gang graffiti and I don’t that that’s mere coincidence. There’s absolutely a public safety element to it along with health and other benefits. It’s a very good program and we want to see it grow.”
Tate noted that Shakopee hired a victim/community services coordinator, Barb Hedstrom, in 2015. “She’s going to be our representative on diversity alliance,” he said. “That’s important for a lot of obvious reasons. It’s important for the police department to be at a lot of events. It’s important for building relationships with the community. Our hope is to integrate more (with Esperanza).”
Esperanza got its start in 2009 and then in 2011, according to Hernandez, “really took off.” That’s when Pastor Pat Simmons of New Creation Church contacted her about serving as a liaison to the Hispanic Community. Hernandez was working for the Shakopee school district at the time, but resigned this year.
When Simmons first contacted her, he had a church program he wanted to expand but was having trouble reaching the Hispanic Community. A union was formed and quickly grew, setting the stage for the growth that exists today.
There were 70 youngsters involved the first year, ages 3 to 12. This summer, there are 115 ages 3 to 11 and another 50 from 12 to 16. The soccer leagues have 150 enrolled from age 5 to 11 and another 50 from 12 to 16.
Growth of the program is expected to continue, as other community businesses and organizations become involved, as Canterbury Park did this summer.
“Canterbury’s involvement allowed us to expand,” Simmons said. “The first years we had soccer for kids ages 12 to 16 on Mondays and Wednesdays, but we’ve added Tuesdays and Thursdays this year because of the space Canterbury provides and because of the financial support.”
Esperanza, incidentally, is Spanish for hope.