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For some Long Islanders, Thanksgiving Day dinner isn't the only tradition

Rachel Zampino holds her Clown U diploma, left,

Rachel Zampino holds her Clown U diploma, left, and her Harvard University diploma at her office at the Nassau County Supreme Court in Mineola. Zampino's Thanksgiving tradition finds her in the role of clown at the Macy's annual parade. Credit: Johnny Milano

Thanksgiving is a homebound holiday for many Long Islanders, a marathon of cooking, eating and maybe a little “Game of Thrones” binge-watching in the warm company of family and close friends.

But tapping the spirit of the first Thanksgiving, many Long Islanders make room for activities outside their inner circle. They'll begin their days running (or walking) with thousands in holiday runs, or volunteering to cook and serve meals at area soup kitchens. Hundreds will make the morning trek into Manhattan not just to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but to put on makeup and perform as a clown in the event seen by millions of TV viewers.

Here are three ways Long Islanders will gobble up Turkey Day free time beyond the family (or friends-giving) table.  

The turkey trotters

By the time Joan and Louis Verardo of Centerport sit down to a turkey dinner on Thursday afternoon, they’ll already have a turkey trot under their belts.

Thanksgiving Day is race day for Joan, 62, the school nurse at Harborfields High School in Greenlawn, and, Louis, 68, a family doctor who will retire in July from Stony Brook Medicine.

Entering the Townwide Fund of Huntington’s Thanksgiving Day Run is an eight-year tradition as ingrained as the sweet potato side dish the Verardos will bring later in the day to a niece’s dinner in Stamford, Connecticut.

“We’re both trying to stay in shape, which is so important as you get older,” said Joan, who is a fit 118 pounds from working out with weights thrice weekly at the gym. “We decided one way to feel little less guilty about eating would be to get some exercise,” she said.

So-called turkey trots have become a popular calorie burner among Long Island’s Baby Boomers. About a third of the Huntington race’s 2,000 entrants are over 50, including a number of octogenarians, said Gloria Palacios, executive director of the Huntington Townwide Fund, which supports nonprofits within the Town of Huntington.  

Indeed, about a third of the 15,000 Long Islanders who enter turkey trots across Nassau and Suffolk counties this year are in the over-50 age group, said Mike Polansky, president of the Greater Long Island Running Club. “There's a lot of gray hair in those races,” Polansky said. Popular turkey trots are also held in Garden City and Port Washington.

Among the competitors in this year’s Port Washington run will be John Wallace, 78, of Melville. It’s the 12th time the retired Herricks Middle School social studies teacher will enter the five-mile course through the scenic Gold Coast village.  

“It’s a challenge because it’s got some rolling hills, and they usually get about 3,000 runners, so it’s a real community feel,” said Wallace, who has also competed in Garden City, Huntington and Shoreham-Wading River. He’s generally up to the challenge and last year finished first in the Port Washington race’s 75 to 79 age group.

The Verardos, however, aren’t out to set records; they will be happy to cross the finish line. Joan often waves to students from the Harborfields cross-country team as they pass her by. “If I get tired going up hill, I’ll stop and walk,” she said.  

Louis, who has a number of health conditions including diabetes, walks the route, often getting encouragement from former patients who also enter the race. “They say, 'hang in there, you can do it,' ” he said.

Their morning calorie burn pays off with a mostly guilt-free Thanksgiving dinner.

Said Joan: “I have bragging rights when I go for that second piece of pie.”

Penchant for the parade

As a child, Rachel Zampino of Port Washington never had time to attend, or even watch, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She was busy from morning to night helping her mother prepare a big family dinner and then entertaining at the living room piano.

But for the past four years, Zampino, who says she’s over 50, has been making up for that omission by putting on makeup and performing as a clown in the iconic Manhattan event.

On Thanksgiving morning, Zampino, who graduated from MacArthur High School in Levittown, will board a pre-dawn train into Manhattan. A professional Macy’s makeup artist will draw big white eyebrows and a red-button nose on Zampino’s face. Clutching a Teddy bear, she’ll join a thousand clowns walking amid the floats and balloons on the 2½-mile parade route.

Zampino said her role as a Macy’s clown is to act as a “liaison” to the thousands of spectators lining the city sidewalks.

“I always like to pick out somebody who’s not smiling or looks disengaged,” Zampino said. “I wave or smile at them. To see them pick up and start to glow is a cool feeling.”

The Macy’s parade is chock-full of clowns who live on Long Island and make the Thanksgiving morning commute to be in the parade. About 200 of this year’s clowns are from Nassau or Suffolk county, according to Macy’s. To be a clown you have to be a Macy’s employee, friend or family member, and train at Macy’s Clown U with professionals from the Big Apple Circus.

Zampino, who works as a law clerk at the Nassau County Supreme Court in Mineola, fits in the friend category.

With experience as a regional theater actress, Zampino leapt at the chance to be a Macy’s clown when a clown captain who is an old high school friend reconnected with her on Facebook four years ago and asked her to join his parade group.

Zampino learned the tricks of the trade at Macy’s Clown U — and hung the diploma on her office wall next to her Harvard University law degree. In years past, she has brought her energy to the clowning fore as a firefighter clown and a Santa’s elf clown.

“She’s probably one of the more energetic clowns in our group. She loves interacting with the kids,” said fellow Macy’s parade clown Lee Klauber, 62, of Hillsborough, New Jersey, another MacArthur High alumnus.

Another of Rachel’s fans: her husband, Tom Zampino, 59, an attorney in Manhattan.  

“Rachel has always been a superstar at whatever she does,” he said. “Being a clown in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is really just one big celebration of her uninhibited talent.”

Community and a side of turkey

Joe Anfora, 65, of Valley Stream, a retired information technology professional, grew up in Valley Stream enjoying what he called “a typical Italian” Thanksgiving. “There was always turkey, and you would sit down at 1 and get up from the table at 5 or 6,” he said.

“It was a family day either at our house or, because my mother was one of 10 children, we’d go to uncles’ or aunts’ houses,” he recalled.

Nine years ago, however, Anfora began spending those precious hours outside his home serving guests in the soup kitchen hosted by Holy Name of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Valley Stream. This year, after a two-year hiatus caused by family responsibilities, he’ll be back in the church school basement loading up plates with roast turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing.

Anfora says that volunteering at the church on Thanksgiving Day has been a revelation for him in a community he thinks of as mostly affluent. “I thought it would be homeless people, but believe it or not there are families that just can’t afford Thanksgiving. It took me aback to find out how many families are living day to day.”

The experience reminds Anfora of his own past, when his family fell on hard times. After his father, who had been wounded in the World War II Battle of the Bulge, became disabled, members of the Valley Stream community often helped his family.

Anfora said he will return to “giving back to the community” beginning on Wednesday night around 7, helping to set up tables in the church basement. He’ll return to the church basement the next day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to serve the hungry guests.

He explained, “It’s not that I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. I have two brothers and two sisters that I always call the night before to wish them a happy turkey day.”

Anfora's wife, Marsha, 64, said that after her husband volunteered for the first time at the soup kitchen, “Thanksgiving took on a different meaning other than just over-indulging in food with family.” She added, “I am so proud that my husband thinks that way.”

Joe Anfora, who also volunteers two days a week as a messenger at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, sees the church event as an opportunity to do more than serve food. He likes to show the guests another tradition from his youth: dinner conversation around the Thanksgiving table.  

He plans to chat with guests who may be far from their own family and friends on the special day. He said he usually receives a warm reception at the tables. “Sometimes people just want to talk because they don’t have anybody,” he said.  

His own Thanksgiving dinner will wait until after the soup kitchen dishes are done. Then he’ll go out to a restaurant with Marsha, a retired medical office manager.  

“It could be an Italian restaurant,” he says, “but one year we went for Chinese food — they were serving turkey.”


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