Table Toppers

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Every Travers day, the most valued piece of real estate at Saratoga Race Course is a picnic table in the backyard. About 8 feet long, all 850 of them are snatched up within minutes of the gates opening at 7 a.m., by people who have been waiting in line since the wee hours of the morning for the chance to run like hell to the backyard and plant a flag – sometimes literally – at a favorite spot and spread out food, drinks, and past performances.

While Travers Day is the apotheosis of the hunt for picnic tables, they are in demand on pretty much every day of the meet, so much so that in recent years the New York Racing Association began charging for the right to reserve one, at first only on Travers day; last year, that practice extended to every day of the meeting, with 100 tables available to people who’d prefer to pay than to get up early to reserve one in person.

While the number of tables available to reserve was reduced by about 10 percent this year, the overall number of tables in the backyard increased, with another 100 added before this summer’s meet began.

And numbers like that are music to Brien Hollowood’s ears.

Hollowood is the executive director of Unlimited Potential, which has sold picnic tables to the track for more than 16 years. Located on Cady Hill Boulevard, a 10-minute drive from the track, Unlimited Potential has for more than three decades offered support, training, employment and recreational opportunities to people diagnosed with mental illness. 

Unlimited Potential was established in 1979, setting up shop at first downtown, founded by people whose children had mental health issues.

“The children were aging out of the youth system,” said Hollowood, “and there was nothing to help them with employment. Unlimited Potential was started to help people find work in the community and to bring them to a sheltered workshop and training facility.”

Now serving about 78 clients, Unlimited Potential operates out of a 27,000 square foot facility that includes offices, workspaces and a warehouse. The workshop offers paid, minimum-wage employment to clients unable to work in the larger community.

On a recent morning, one client was individually shrink-wrapping locally made dog biscuits. Another was sifting peat that would be used in the manufacturing of high-quality paper. The woodworking shop was quiet, but in the afternoons, Rick Marshall, the woodwork supervisor, comes in to cut wood supplied by Curtis Lumber and begins to assemble Adirondack chairs, picnic tables, and other wood products Unlimited Potential’s clients will later complete.

Clients range in age from 18 to their 60s, diagnosed with illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. As they age out of the work force, they can join the on-site Golden Club for clients 55 and older to discuss current events, watch movies, play computer games and engage in physical exercise and field trips.

Unlimited Potential has a staff of 13, down from 18 due to New York State budget cuts, which has led Hollowood, reluctantly, to close programs in addition to reducing staff. State funding is the organization’s main revenue stream, and Hollowood has recently had to raise prices on the items the company produces to help make up the shortfall.

Still, the products are reasonably priced. Unlimited Potential delivers in the Capital Region, and Hollowood routinely gets phone calls from people who have seen the company’s name on a picnic table at the track and want to order one for the backyard. Prices start at $145 for a 6-foot pine table and go up to $250 for a 12-foot pressure-treated one. Also available for sale are shrub covers and Adirondack chairs in a variety of sizes, the latter of which can be custom-painted.

Unlimited Potential clients also work in the greater community, at places like the Wesley Community, which offers senior care and apartments; the Holiday Inn, at which Hollowood’s wife Cindy works as the general manager; and Price Chopper. 

“We hired a job-development person in November, and she’s already found work for over 30 people in the community,” said Hollowood. “One of the strong points of being in Saratoga is that it’s such a place that likes to do things for other people in the community.”

In 2015, NYRA hired its first Unlimited Potential client to work the Saratoga meet, as a whitecap. This year, another client was hired as a parking attendant.  

“Unlimited Potential is an invaluable resource for Saratoga and beyond,” said NYRA spokesperson Pat McKenna. “If NYRA can contribute to that, if we can strengthen the organization in some small way through commissioning tables each season, or providing a pathway to seasonal jobs at the track, we feel proud of that relationship and hope to continue it. It reflects our commitment to partnering with the local community and this non-profit doing vital work in Saratoga and upstate New York.” 

Unlimited Potential is a 501c3 charity that accepts donations-“the bigger, the better,” said Hollowed with a laugh-and is always on the lookout for businesses with which it can partner to create opportunities for clients. 

In early 2017, Hollowood will get the order for next summer’s picnic tables from NYRA, and then the staff at Unlimited Potential will get to work, assembling the furniture that will be so highly prized at next summer’s racing meeting. As NYRA finds tables that have begun to weaken or degrade, they pull them from the inventory and order replacements. 

“Unfortunately, they last forever,” joked Hollowood. “We do too good a job. We wish they’d break down a lot sooner.” 

Quality products, created by the efforts of people whose lives are enriched by Unlimited Potential, in turn enrich the experiences of people who come to the backyard at Saratoga year after year, and of people across the state and the country, and around the world, who contract Unlimited Potential’s services or purchase their work.

“Good work, great results is kind of our motto,” said Hollowood. “It’s been working that way for all these years now.”

Editor’s note: Originally published in Sept. 2 issue of The Saratoga Special.