Finding a Home, Filling a Need

Peggy Goetsch has been serving Illinois' backstretch community for 32 years.

The Racing Industry Charitable Foundation is a 2013 grantee of Thoroughbred Charities of America, the charitable arm of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

Taking her first steps through a racetrack barn area almost 32 years ago felt like walking through a foreign country for young social worker Peggy Goetsch.

"I didn't know what this job was I'd taken, and the people were speaking a foreign language," said Goetsch, now executive director for the Chicago-based Racing Industry Charitable Foundation. She had intended on sticking around only a year when she started with the then-fledgling organization, founded in 1977 to provide social services to backstretch employees.

Goetsch, a native of northwest Chicago and a Cubs fan, got her formal training as a social worker. After several years working to provide adequate housing for the handicapped for the city of Chicago and for the Salvation Army, Goetsch followed a respected co-worker to the Racing Industry Charitable Foundation, where he had accepted the role of executive director. The foreign land she found herself in quickly captivated her.

"I thought the workers were fascinating and were so intelligent about the animals," she said. "It wasn't just a job for them; it was a love and a passion. I also saw there was a great need for the services provided by RICF."

A year and a half later the co-worker Goetsch followed to the RICF left to take a job in Minnesota, and she took over as executive director.

Aside from recognizing the valuable service the RICF provides, Goetsch has stuck with the organization because of a talent she discovered within herself early in her career. She excelled in assessing the most pressing needs and creating the programs to meet those needs.

"It started when I worked for the city. I kept getting thrown into administrative work, which I didn't initially want to do but I started to like it," she said. Goetsch got a degree in health administration. Once she was in charge of the RICF, her goal became expanding the services it provided. "I found I was good at presenting and at program development. I like to be hands-on, and I am at the tracks a lot. If you don't have a feel for what you are doing, you can't develop good programs."

When Goetsch started at the RICF, the organization offered limited health services at the Chicago-area racetracks and was funded strictly by donations. She got some help in 1988 from a new law requiring racetracks to contribute to a charitable fund. A formula that included number of live racing days, handle, and attendance determined a track's level of contribution. The fund raises $750,000 annually, which can be distributed by the Illinois Racing Board to any qualifying organization. As it turned out, the RICF has been the only organization that meets the criteria.

"We are not an organization that does a lot of different things," Goetsch said. "We do one thingserve the backstretch of the racetracks. Because of this funding we get scrutinized a lot, but I don't mind it. I'd rather be scrutinized and have everyone see what we're providing than have questions."

With a more stable funding source, Goetsch expanded the programs to include more comprehensive medical care, dental care, substance abuse programs, and other social services. She first expanded the programs at Arlington, Hawthorne Racecourse, and the former Sportsman's Park. By the end of 1988, programs had been implemented at Balmoral Park, Maywood Park, and Fairmount Park.

Illinois racetracks offer some unique challenges for social services because children are allowed on the backstretch.

"It sure changes the complexion," Goetsch said. With so many children as residents, RICF focuses heavily on preventative medical care through immunizations, regular exams, and dental care. The foundation used to offer summer camps but had to stop because of limited funding. The state's charitable fund has been capped at $750,000 since its inception, but costs have increased substantially.

"The growth in health care costs has been the biggest change I've seen," Goetsch said. "People rely on us for basic care and use social workers as references if they need more care. We meet every week with professionals from every discipline and go over each case and determine where we can send them."

Community partnerships help Goetsch fill the gap between funding shortages and growing needs.

"Our partners will also let us know about programs that are available in other areas and that may fit in the racetrack environment.

"These workers have hard jobs in an environment that is not typically open to social workers," Goetsch explained about the niche the RICF fills. "Social work professionals wonder why we are there until they come out to the track and see for themselves. Once they're here, they understand. We are an important part of the community."