One of the core values of The Bridge Church in Malverne is to go where the needs are. For the past six years, one of the church’s main focuses has been supporting the 1,500 people who work on the backstretch at Belmont Park in Elmont.
“At the dorms that these workers live in near the racetrack, they don’t have kitchens,” said the Rev. Dan Quagliata. “All they have are microwaves. When it comes to food, we’d like to make sure that nobody goes hungry.”
The church learned about track workers’ challenges after noticing that some Spanish-speaking people were attending their services. Coincidentally, the leaders of the service were chaplains for the New York Racetrack Chaplaincy, which serves both jockeys and backstretch employees at Belmont, the Saratoga Race Course and the Aqueduct Racetrack.
“The Spanish population on Long Island has grown 40 percent every year,” Quagliata said. “What we came to learn is that what you see when you go to the track for a race is sometimes different from what people are experiencing on the backstretch. The needs there are pronounced, and it sparked within us the desire to say, ‘What can we do?’”
The church developed the Bridge to Belmont ministry. It includes a year-round backpack drive, from which the church distributed roughly 100 backpacks over the past year, and a coat drive, in which hundreds of items are gathered annually. The food drive is an ongoing effort, and canned goods are sent to workers every week. In addition, the church organizes a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the chaplaincy.
“I think it’s important to realize that these people are just like you and I,” Quagliata said. “These people go to work every day, providing for their families. We’re living in very divided times right now, and there’s uncertainty in those times. However, when love decides the moment, that’s when God shows up.”
About two weeks ago, Malverne Mayor Patti Ann McDonald and Village Clerk Terry Emmel noticed that chaplaincy members were loading a truck with canned goods. “We thought it was just for a food drive, but then we learned that was for a Bridge to Belmont,” Emmel said. “I was so touched by what they’re doing.”
The village board began its own drive at Village Hall, where residents can donate canned goods. Quagliata said that this is the first time the church has collaborated with another village group.
“For the most part, it’s been pretty in-house, but we’re so much better when we work together,” he said. “When people get together and realize we can all put aside the things that divide us and come together around the things that rally us, those are things that change a community for the better.”
“When Dan told me about this collaboration, I almost fell out of my seat,” said the Rev. Humberto Chavez, head of the Belmont Park Race Track Chaplaincy, which operates a food pantry. “We hope this could spark more local villages and communities to take part in this initiative.”
Chavez said that canned soup remains the most sought-after item, since it is microwavable, and that collecting fresh produce and non-perishable food for workers at the racetrack is a constant challenge.
His goal is to have other ministries and churches take on similar roles as that of The Bridge Church. “The support we’ve gotten from The Bridge Church has been tremendous,” Chavez said. “They have been a blessing to us.”
This year, the church hopes to host its own Thanksgiving dinner for all the workers on the backstretch.
“It’s a blessing when you can serve other people,” Quagliata said. “The greatest blessing is knowing that you’re impacting the life of another person, and our goal is to serve as many people as possible.”