About three dozen people met at Wantagh Elementary School early last Saturday morning for the first 5K run of the Wantagh Wellness Project, a community group dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyle choices among neighbors.
The warm spring sun shone down on the runners as they made their way through Wantagh’s side streets before circling back to the elementary school parking lot. Wantagh Wellness Project founder Kyle Lennon, 40 finished in 22 minutes, neck and neck with Chris Jacobi, 40, his close friend from Merrick and a member of the North Merrick Runners.
“That was faster than I planned on running,” Jacobi said with a laugh as they reached the school, to which Lennon replied, “My bad.”
Lennon and his wife, Ilene, launched the Wantagh Wellness Project in January 2020, planning to host a variety of community events, but didn’t have much of an opportunity before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country. Over the past year, however, they have managed the project as a Facebook group whose members share healthy recipes, exercise routines and other tips.
“We try to show what a healthy lifestyle looks like,” Lennon said. “There’s so much chronic disease out there that is preventable, and we’re sick and tired of seeing people who are sick and tired.”
Lennon’s inspiration grew out of his and his wife’s work in health care. He’s an emergency doctor at Northwell Health’s GoHealth Urgent Care in Massapequa, and Ilene is a physician’s assistant at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. They both grew up in the Wantagh school district, and started dating at Wantagh High School. Now their three sons, Trevor, 10, Brody, 8, and Gavin, 6, go to the same elementary school where their parents met.
“We try to encourage them to be healthy the best way we can,” Kyle said, adding that the key to a healthy lifestyle is more than just eating the right food and exercising. “It’s also about connecting with people and having community,” he said. “We love this town. It’s our hope that we could spread the word about living a healthy lifestyle with our neighbors. If we all do this together and hold each other accountable, we could prevent each other from getting sick.”
When the pandemic hit, it halted Lennon and his wife’s plans in more ways than one. “As a doctor, it’s been really difficult and challenging at times,” he said. “When it first hit in March, there were times when I was afraid to go to work. I was [in] conflict with my role as a doctor and my role as a husband and father, because I didn’t want to put anyone in my family at risk.”
Ultimately, however, he said he believed the coronavirus drew more attention to his cause. “I think the pandemic brought health to the forefront and made people realize that we can’t take our health for granted,” he said.
The Wantagh Wellness Project also partners with Jennifer Martini, a Wantagh fitness instructor who has hosted virtual yoga classes for the group and co-hosted the 5K last Saturday. Also in attendance was Wantagh High Principal Paul Guzzone, who started his tenure last May. Guzzone, 35, grew up in Melville and now lives in Seaford. “It’s nice living so close,” he said, “because I get to be a part of the community and come to events like this.”
Guzzone shares Lennon’s interest in promoting wellness and prioritizing mental health. A former associate principal and director of school counseling at Oceanside High School, he served on that district’s Mental Health and Wellness task force. There he implemented a new course, Redefining Mental Health and Wellness, whose focuses included advocacy, mindfulness practices and stigmas.
Guzzone said that starting his tenure during the coronavirus pandemic was an overwhelming task. “It’s involved a lot of digging in to the community and having conversations with people who know the community the most,” he said. “I’m getting to know Wantagh’s values and finding ways to keep those values and traditions alive under the confines of the pandemic.”