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FEATURE: Chaplain Shawn leading by example

April 16, 2017

​By Beverley Smith for

TORONTO, April 16 – If Easter is all about hope and sacrifice, then Chaplain Shawn Kennedy dispenses it, as well as he can, tirelessly treading the Woodbine backstretch, end to end.
He pauses to enquire. He reaches out a hand, in so many ways. He’s been doing this at Woodbine since 2004, when he applied for a position that was new. He was the only applicant.
But the backstretch workers, the ones who are always left behind, and who have so little, have been blessed by his coming. There will be an Easter chapel service, and granted, an Easter lunch, too, on the backstretch this year. But it’s not like anybody else’s Easter. Usually, grooms and hotwalkers and exercise riders work through holidays. Their Easter celebrations came early in the week, on an off-day.
This early celebration is not a hard sell, the chaplain says. The places are packed, filled with joy. It’s noisy and people are talking and sitting with each other, with people they may not normally sit with. The backstretch becomes a community on these days.
Easter isn’t literal on this backstretch. Chaplain Kennedy serves them as a non-denominational pastor, welcoming all sorts into his flock, all equal and valid under the racetrack skies. All denominations have some sort of god. “The vast majority of people I run into at the racetrack don’t have a problem with God,” the chaplain says. “They believe in God. There are no atheists at the eighth pole. Everybody is praying.”
“We’re feeding people. We’re clothing people. We’re counselling people. We’re supporting people. And Shawn does that in a variety of ways,” says Jim Bannon, president of The Racetrack Chaplaincy of Canada. “For those that want to worship, they have an opportunity to worship,” Bannon says. “For those that want to belong to a community, they get to belong to a community, where somebody actually cares about what’s happening in their lives.”​

Easter lunch… (Bev Smith Photo)

Kennedy’s job never ends. Some people stay on the backstretch all winter, during the racing off-season. Kennedy takes it upon himself to knock on doors, making sure people are okay. “When the season is over, people just tend to hibernate,” he said. In high season, more than 1,400 people work on the 187-acre backstretch, with up to 300 living in the dorms.
The greatest problem on the backstretch isn’t drugs, or alcohol or gambling. It’s loneliness, the chaplain says. He knows, better than most. The chaplain was born into a racing family in Winnipeg, and worked as an amateur jockey and as a trainer for 10 years, until he felt the calling, felt he needed to serve, especially after he attended a funeral for a popular trainer. And nobody came.
Bannon, now a handicapper and broadcaster at Woodbine, started out as a hotwalker and a groom on the backstretch. “So we know that people can get lost in that maze back there,” Bannon said. “And depression can seep in pretty quickly, when you are in that gated community.”
“People go through the same things that people do everywhere,” Kennedy said. “Do I matter in life? What’s the point? Why do bad people seem to prosper and good people seem to get punished? All those questions. A chaplaincy can help people in ways that nobody else can.”
When somebody is hurt at a racetrack, Kennedy can get into hospitals where others can’t. “I think that brings a sense of peace to people,” he said. Whenever an accident happens on track, Woodbine’s ambulance driver calls the chaplain who heads to the hospital to help.
A good example happened a few years ago, when a horse stumbled from the starting gate, and tossed the jockey off. “He kind of dropped like a lawn dart,” Kennedy said. He was knocked unconscious.
Kennedy found the jockey in a hospital room. For three hours, his only questions to the chaplain were: “Where am I? What happened?” Kennedy knew he was concussed.
The only other thing he could remember was his fiance’s cell phone number. Kennedy called her. She arrived, and sat with the chaplain while the jockey went for x-rays.
“At that point, she just broke right down,” Kennedy said. “So here’s a person I just met. And she’s crying on my shoulder. You can’t say anything. There is nothing to console. You’re just there.”
On his cell phone, Kennedy was able to show a replay of the race to the doctors, who could understand more clearly the jockey’s issues.
Last January, Kennedy married the two. “I’ve been there in the lowest part of his life,” the chaplain said. “And I was also there in one of the highlights.”
Let us count the ways that Kennedy shows that he cares. The chaplain plays host to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He has set up computer learning classes in “The Jake,” the backstretch name for the Jake Howard Centre, named after a former Woodbine chairman, whose estate picked up renovation costs. A library and a used clothing depot are tucked inside “the Jake.” He conducts funerals. He helps backstretch workers, so often alone or without family, to write wills. He conducts weekly chapel services, often pressing his guitar into operation. Singing, too.

Chaplain Shawn… (Bev Smith Photo)
Last year, the chaplaincy opened a medical clinic on the backstretch, quite by accident. A local community outreach worker, Golda Innis, had phoned Woodbine’s main phone number, thinking she was calling Woodbine mall, to set up a diabetes screening clinic. Eventually, she was connected with Kennedy.
Innis, “blown away” by the size of a Woodbine’s city within a city, suggested she do free diabetes screening on the backstretch. “Come on down,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy got nosing around the complex of buildings on the backstretch and found connected to it a room with a bathroom.
“It’s like God dropped this room in our laps,” the chaplain said. It’s now a medical office for a doctor who comes periodically and spells off with a nurse practitioner. Innis also had an idea to get nursing students to volunteer their help as well. They put on a health fair in the backstretch kitchen.
It’s not easy for backstretch workers to get to clinics off-site. Many people don’t drive, or have a doctor. “We had people lined up into the parking lot,” Kennedy said. The clinic gives flu shots, too. A dental hygienist is next on the list. The chaplain and his helpers, including Bannon, have rounded up a used dentist’s chair, now installed.
The chaplaincy also brings in speakers to help backstretch workers, even teaching them how to set up a bank account. It’s not a coincidence that the chaplaincy has made a favourable impact on delinquency and vandalism on the backside.
The chaplain will be 60 later this year. His brother has suggested he pick up an old hobby: painting, brushes, colours, all of that.
“I’ll do it when I get older,” Kennedy replied. For now, he’s dealing with stressed backstretch workers with fears, finding practical solutions and spiritual ones, too. All to give them something, a little bit of hope.
“We’re living out the theme of Easter,” he said. Every day.
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