05/29/2003 11:00PM

Center fills educational needs of backstretch


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - When Sarah Evans opened the doors to the Hastings Learning Center this spring, she wasn't sure what to expect.

Evans, who is an instructor at Capilano College, has had plenty of experience with learning centers around British Columbia. She cut her teeth in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Canada, working at the Carnegie Center in the downtown east side of Vancouver. Evans has also worked at a learning center in a pulp mill in Prince George and at the Vancouver General Hospital. But she had never spent any time at a racetrack, and the challenges presented in working with backstretch workers were unusual.

"It's been a huge success," said Evans. "For people to actually come here at the end of their long, hard workday and work as a tutor or try and learn about computers or learn to read and write English is remarkable. We have about 50 people that come through these doors, not on a daily basis, but throughout the week. To me, that's pretty awesome."

The idea for the learning center came about when Peter Ellickson wanted to start a literacy program on the Hastings backstretch. Ellickson retired as a senior instructor emeritus from the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia and was a former member of the B.C. Racing Commission.

He approached the Vancouver Backstretch Workers Society, and its president, Alison Goulding, took the idea to the Kiwassa Neighborhood House, a local community center that helped run the backstretch day-care program. Through their connections, Evans was brought on board.

The learning center is truly a group effort, with funding coming from Hastings Entertainment, the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, the Thoroughbred Ladies Club, and Capilano College.

The center is located above the backstretch cafeteria, and while it offers many different programs - English as a second language, General Educational Development diploma, and others - the most popular program is basic computer skills.

The center has six computers that are hooked to a high-speed Internet connection and are available for anyone on the backstretch to use when the center is open. Many of the grooms and hotwalkers at Hastings are recent immigrants, many from Mexico, and this allows them to stay in touch with their families through e-mail.

A wide variety of people come to the center. Some are trying to finish their high school education, but a couple of people are working on college programs.

"We have one person working on becoming a power engineer through an online course with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology," said Evans. "This is a very high-level program."

Some of the top jockeys at Hastings also are making good use of the center. Pedro Alvarado and Frank Fuentes both speak excellent English but want to improve their reading and writing skills. They work with retired elementary school teacher Jeannie Spence.

"What helps make the center work is the flexible hours," said Spence. "I'll work with Pedro and Frank during the 7:30 renovation break in the morning. Cayetano [Chaparro] and Carlos [Silva] come in during the second break at 9:30."

Spence has been tutoring on the backstretch for the past 20 years and is extremely pleased to have the center.

"Having the facility makes a world of difference," she said. "Working in tack rooms just doesn't cut it, and now with the computers, books, and everything else, it's just wonderful."

Assistant trainer Ted Brunson is one of the regulars at the center. Brunson, who is 61 and comes from a racing family, has worked at the track his whole life, and, like most backstretch workers, has never had time to further his education past high school. He's learning about computers and is working on writing his life story.

"It's been great," he said. "I was terrified of computers before I came in here, but now I'm pretty comfortable. I never thought that I would be able to figure out how to do this, but actually, it's pretty easy."

Evans gives credit to the racing community for the success of the learning center.

"It's been a community effort right from the start," she said. "The backstretch society, Hastings management, the HBPA, and the CTHS have all given their time, money, and energy to make this work. For me it's all about building community, and it's been a real eye-opener for me to see how strong the racing community has come together to make something positive happen."