Stop by the Canterbury Park horse stables on a weekday morning, and you’d think you were in a different town. Trainers and groomsmen massage the calves of their horses, and jockeys nod their helmets as they ride past. Trucks glide through the dirt, kicking smoke in the air and into the nostrils of snorting horses.
Above the horse stables are 240 dorm rooms for horse groomers, trainers and jockeys. Between 250 and 320 people live in those dorms every summer, according to Canterbury Media Relations Manager Jeff Maday. It’s a quiet area filled with families and children temporarily calling Shakopee home, and most people who live in Shakopee permanently don’t think about Canterbury’s little pop-up neighborhood. But because of a summer camp called Esperanza, about 20 children who live at Canterbury get to make friends, exercise, and learn — as well as get off the racetrack property for a couple of hours each day.
Esperanza, which means “hope” in Spanish, is a camp that partners with more than 30 organizations such as the YMCA, Canterbury, Bayer, Shakopee Public Schools and the Shakopee Soccer Association to provide free meals, education and fitness for more than 200 students from pre-kindergarten to junior high.
When Esperanza organizer Mary Hernández heard about the children who live at Canterbury at the onset of the camp in 2010, she immediately opened up registration for them.
“We want to make you feel welcome. I feel like it’s my job to welcome others,” Hernández said.
Since 2010, the camp has grown from 12 students to more than 200. Most children who join Esperanza belong to families who qualify for free and reduced lunches, Hernández said, but it’s open to anyone.
Patrick and Rita Fields, who live in a camper at Canterbury Park in the summer with their two boys, Brayden and Grady, don’t get days off. The 14 horses Patrick trains don’t take care of themselves on holidays or weekends, and neither do the kids. Breakfast still needs to be made, the horses need to be fed, and the kids still need to find a way to cure the summer boredom epidemic.
On a typical day, Patrick is at the stables by 5 a.m. to warm up the horses, and Rita wakes up Brayden and Grady, who are 3 and 6, to get them ready for the day. She meets her husband at the stables around 8. If the kids didn’t go to Esperanza from Monday to Thursday, she said, they’d be “causing trouble around the barn.”
Rita said it’s especially helpful to have child care in the mornings, because that’s the most dangerous time for her children to be roaming around Canterbury. Horses are walking around and, even though she says her kids are “pretty barn smart,” it’s nice to not have to worry about where they are.
On Tuesday morning, the little ones stood in a long line for lunch at Jackson Elementary. Hollers and squeals echoed in the Jackson Elementary cafeteria. Lunch and breakfast is free to the children, and Brayden Fields, who’s 3 and stands a couple inches shorter than every other kid in the room, is nibbling on his sandwich at the end of the table. His big brother Grady Fields, 6, is like a wind-up toy, giggling and bouncing up and down as his friends talk about their crushes.
“We think they enjoy it more there,” Rita Fields said. “They have fun here (at Canterbury), but I think they have more fun at Esperanza.”
Another 6-year old boy from Canterbury, Chase, has been part of Esperanza since he was 3. Hernández said it’s been fun to watch him grow over the years as he continues to sign up for the program. When asked if he liked camp Esperanza, his mouth was too full, so he just nodded emphatically and dove in for another bite.
“To see them grow with us and come back… they’re one of us, just like everybody else,” Hernández said.
One of Esperanza’s staples is its relationship with the Shakopee Soccer Association. Every age group is given time to play soccer on Tuesdays and Thursdays—and they don’t just play. They train. At the Shakopee Soccer Complex, more than 50 middle school students kicked their knees into the air, ran laps around the field, and poured water on their heads as coaches pushed them.
“Let’s go!” Flores said. “Get those knees up higher, you can do it.”
“One, two, up. You should feel it!”
“Good work. Keep pushing, let’s go.”
Hernández hopes kids like Chase will grow up and give back to Esperanza, like Jovani Flores, one of the soccer coaches. He graduated from Eden Prairie last year, but lives in Shakopee. He’s been on staff for three years, and before that, he was a member of Esperanza.
“I grew as a person and as a (soccer) player through the camp,” Flores said. “I met a lot of friends and I joined a club team because of the camp.”
Most mornings, the preschool and elementary-aged kids eat breakfast and lunch at Jackson Elementary. In the meantime, they’re bused to New Creation Lutheran church, where they make crafts, learn science, technology, engineering and math skills, play soccer, read and work on math skills, and play at the park.
On Wednesdays, Shakopee middle school students and Canterbury Park children receive STEM lessons in a conference room at Canterbury from 4-H and Bayer, a pharmaceutical company with a location in Shakopee. On this particular day, they made roller coasters out of styrofoam and marbles.
On Thursdays, all the kids are bused to the Shakopee YMCA, where they get water safety and strength training.
Hernández said Esperanza would normally cost each family between $500 and $600 per child, but because of help from more than 30 partners and waived fees from the school district and soccer association, Esperanza doesn’t charge families a dime.
“Some kids gravitate towards gangs, not graduating,” Hernández said. “We want to change that culture. So it’s about opening our doors to everyone and anyone. We work together. These are our kids.”
Hernández said the best part about the camp is seeing kids want to show up every day.
“I like seeing the kids so willingly come and participate,” she said. “They’re here because they want to be.”
The Fields family, who spends the winter racing horses in Phoenix, said they’re grateful for a place their kids can look forward to attending, because for some families, moving is really hard on the kids.
“Once Grady went, he looked forward to this every year, and now Brayden gets to go with his brother,” Patrick said.
Rita nodded. “They really do love it.”
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