By Francis LaBelle


Lately, work and travel have kept Frank Saldate Jr. busy. So, he relished this Sunday morning at a Little League baseball game. The team, which is coached by Frank’s son, Frank II, and includes his grandson, Frank III, was invited to participate at Cooperstown, NY, later this summer. Frank Jr. does what he can to show support.

“Whenever we have fundraisers, I cook up the food to sell,” he said proudly.

Frank Jr. is willing to put in whatever time is necessary to make this visit to the home of baseball’s Hall of Fame a reality for the team. Not that long ago, it was not even a blurry vision.

“I grew up in a tough part of Fresno (CA),” he said. “I first got incarcerated when I was nine years old, and I stopped when I was 50. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Correctional Department.”

Frank Jr. eventually ended up in Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP) in Coalinga, CA, where he served a 20-year sentence for bank robbery. While at PVSP, he earned a certification in fiber optics and even became a firefighter with the prison’s fire rescue department. As an engineer, he drove the fire truck and worked with local, state and federal first responders as part of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal FIRE). He dealt with fires, floods, and other natural disasters.

Frank Jr. also put his energy into honing his natural talent and love for art. He drew for personal enjoyment and for friends. He even painted signs for the fire department and for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s (TRF) Second Chances Program at PVSP. At every opportunity, he practiced his art.

Frank was paroled in 2019, just when Second Chances at PVSP was taking off. He wasn’t part of the program then, but he sure is part of it now. Earlier this year, Frank came up with the idea of TRF’s On-Line Art Exhibit and Auction. Held in cooperation with Saratoga Arts, the month-long event featured artwork donated by inmates at PVSP to raise funds for its Second Chances Program.

Frank donated five of his acrylic paintings to the auction, four of which – a chestnut horse, a bay horse, a horse and jockey, and a barrel racer – were untitled. The fifth he named Horses in the Clouds, and depicted a horse surrounded by blue, sunny skies and billowy clouds. There wasn’t a fence or a wall to be seen.

“Even though I was getting paroled, I knew that there were horses that were coming to the prison to help out the prisoners,” he said. “I knew that they had been racehorses but couldn’t race any more. Even though they were coming to the prison, the horses were going to be free to be horses. Horses in the Clouds I liked because I liked the idea of the horses being free from having to race.”

That didn’t mean the horses would have nothing to do.

PVSP’s Second Chances Program was established in October of 2019, two months after Frank Jr. was released. It was the latest expansion of a program that launched 40 years earlier at the Wallkill Correctional Facility near New Paltz, NY, about 70 miles north of New York City. Its purpose was to not only find sanctuary homes for former racehorses, but to provide the horses with new careers as teachers. The inmates learned vocational skills as equine caretakers, but they also bonded with the horses and learned about trust and mutual respect.

At PVSP, Second Chances was an immediate success. Despite being hamstrung by the COVID-19 pandemic just a few months later, Second Chances flourished under a cooperative effort by the California Department of Corrections, West Hills College, Harris Farm, PVSP, and the TRF. PVSP’s Second Chance Program was so impressive that farm manager Heidi Richards was named California DOC’s Corrections Officer of the Year in 2020.

Richards always paid attention to things as part of her job, and she noticed the quality of Frank Jr.’s work in his sign painting. As an art fan herself, she contacted one of her former teachers and supplied Frank with a canvas for his work. Eventually, he had the idea of featuring prison art in an auction to raise money for PVSP Second Chances.

“I had been drawing for a long, long time,” said Frank, who will be 55 in June. “I did airbrush, pen and pencil, and even tattoos. They knew me from my drawings and the signs I painted. Mrs. Richards had started this new program and she asked me if I would paint their sign and I told them I would do whatever I can do for them.”

“I got a little bit of talent, so I did what they wanted. Between drawing and driving the firetruck, I kept myself busy.”

Since his parole, Frank has found steady work as a “treater” with a California utilities company, recovered from a broken pelvis he sustained in a motorcycle accident, and most importantly, reconnected with his two daughters, his son, and seven grandchildren. He was happy to be part of the On-Line Art Auction and to help PVSP’s Second Chances. He is even happier enjoying his freedom.

“You just don’t know what it means to me, and especially to my son and grandson,” Frank said. “I’ve been out for five years. I live with my son and his family, and we are hoping to go to Cooperstown in July with the baseball team. Things are going good, and I realize that there was a long time when I couldn’t even think about going to a baseball game.”

“So, I was happy to be part of this art auction. I just missed [Second Chances], but I knew that Mrs. Richards’ program is doing good and is helping people. I just wanted to help.”

More importantly, Frank Jr. wants to share the lesson that took him many years to learn.

“I have grown very close to my kids and grandkids over the last five years,” he shared. “I learned that if you take the time to give them your attention and to know your loved ones, there is nothing in the world that can take that love from you. And nothing can take away their love for you.”