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Jim Kenyon: Zack’s Place Turkey Trot in Woodstock a Cold Run for a Cool Cause

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

When I caught up with Norm Frates on Wednesday afternoon, he was headed to a hardware store to buy an air horn. It wasn’t to herd family and friends to the Thanksgiving dinner table the next day — which, come to think of it, might have been a good idea with 28 people expected for their family feast.

But before Frates and his wife, Dail, could worry about carving a turkey (or, in their case, turkeys), there was an even larger gathering — one where an air horn isn’t so out of place.

For 12 years, the Frateses — with plenty of help from co-workers, friends and family — have hosted the 5K Zack’s Place Turkey Trot, an Upper Valley tradition that often attracts upward of 1,700 runners and walkers to Woodstock on Thanksgiving morning. This year, the crowd seemed slightly smaller (although 1,200 people had pre-registered), but that had more to do with the 10-degree temperature than anything else.

The turkey trot is a fundraiser for Zack’s Place, a community center for people with special needs in downtown Woodstock. In a good year, the event raises roughly $85,000 — one-third of the nonprofit organization’s annual budget.

Zack’s Place, which is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, offers classes in art, music and healthy cooking to name a few. All for free. There are also field trips that range from bowling in Claremont to visits to science museums in Concord and Burlington.

The story behind Zack’s Place is fairly well-known, but it’s worth retelling.

The community center is named for Zack Frates, who was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects a person’s movement, motor skills and muscle tone. There’s no cure, and it affects roughly 500,000 people in the U.S., according to the nonprofit United Cerebral Palsy Association.

“Because of Zack’s disability, he required constant care,” Dail Frates, his stepmom, wrote in an online piece after Zack’s Place was founded in 2007. “He was fed through a tube because he did not have the muscular control to chew and swallow food.”

She recalled meeting Zack, who used a wheelchair and was virtually unable to communicate verbally, for the first time. “His smile made me feel welcome and relaxed,” she wrote. “Despite Zack’s circumstances, he was very cognitive and understood the world around him and any verbal communications. He always had a sunny disposition.”

Norm and Dail were married in 2005. “Together, we were a chaotic family of seven” with five children — four in high school and one in elementary school.

Norm Frates “made it his mission to include Zack in whatever he was doing,” Dail wrote. “That could mean baseball, water skiing, downhill skiing, meeting a friend for a beer, taking a walk.”

People with disabilities can remain in school until they’re 22. When Norm dropped Zack off at high school in the morning, “I could just see how much he enjoyed being around everyone,” he said.

Zack was 16 when Norm started thinking seriously about what his son’s life would be like after he stopped attending Woodstock Union High School. Norm looked around, but his research didn’t turn up anything. The government provided families with a little sum of money that was basically enough to hire a “glorified baby sitter,” he told me.

Norm, who owned a small mortgage company at the time, decided to do something about the lack of alternatives for adults with cerebral palsy and their families. He showed Dail, a real estate broker, a vacant building on Mechanic Street in downtown Woodstock. They bought it and fixed it up.

In 2005, they started an after-school program in the building for Zack and six of his friends with special needs. “We wanted to create a place that they could call their own,” Norm said.

It was run on a shoestring budget. On weekday afternoons, Norm and Dail left their jobs to be at Zack’s Place when their son and his friends arrived from school. There was art, music and storytelling. “We always did some form of exercise, too” Norm said.

“We always wanted Zack to be part of the community,” said Dail, who took over as the nonprofit’s executive director in 2010. “That’s why we started Zack’s Place — so he wouldn’t be home alone or watching TV with nothing to do.”

After getting Zack’s Place off the ground, the Frateses needed to find a way to pay for it. One of Norm’s sisters suggested a 5K race on Thanksgiving morning.

Before the first turkey trot in 2007, Norm bought 100 T-shirts. That Thanksgiving morning, 250 runners showed up, “and it was snowing,” said Norm, now a senior vice president at Mascoma Bank.

Zack died in 2011 at age 22. The people with special needs who use the services provided at Zack’s Place took up 10 rows at his funeral. Until then, Dail said, she really hadn’t grasped how big a part Zack’s Place played in their lives. “They needed to have opportunities like everybody else,” she said.

About 90 people, ranging in age from 8 to 55, are regulars at Zack’s Place, which outgrew its original home and now is located on Woodstock’s main drag. They come from communities throughout the Upper Valley, some as far as 40 miles from Woodstock.

On Thursday morning, I ran the 3.1 miles with my daughter, Madison. About 200 yards in, I wished I had heeded her advice to wear a neck warmer.

But after a mile or so, it didn’t seem cold at all. It doesn’t take long to warm up to running (or in my case, jogging) for a worthy cause.