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Greenlawn-Centerport Historical Association

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By Nasrin Zahed

Saturday, Sept. 16, marked the 43rd annual Greenlawn Pickle Festival, and the streets leading into the John Gardiner Farm, located at 900 Park Ave. in Huntington, were overflowing with visitors.

Hosted by the Greenlawn/Centerport Historical Association, Long Islanders had the opportunity to partake in the historic event. In honor of the once-flourishing pickle industry from 1880 to 1920, the festival is a chance for locals to look back on history and enjoy a classic pickle.

The site of the event was once a 600-acre farmscape run by the late Alexander Gardiner. Considered one of the leading farmers in the Huntington area, he was well known for introducing pickles as a cash crop, earning himself the title of “pickle pioneer.”

With parking along street sides and neighboring lots, patrons were welcomed into the farm for a small fee of $5 for nonmembers, $4 for members and children under 12 entered free.

Awaiting guests within the event were fun-filled activities such as hayrides, an antique car show, fried pickles, live music, a craft fair with over 30 vendors, pickle history displays, lollipop train rides, a farmers market, a corn maze, wine sampling and more pickles than one could imagine.

The event’s popularity seemed to spike this year as the space filled up quickly with community members wishing to join in on the pickle festivities — at times with hundreds waiting outside the entrance.

By midafternoon, the event had reached overcapacity, leaving volunteer members to explain to the hundreds outside that they were only permitted entry once people had left the festival. Also, by this time, many food vendors had run out of products for sale.

For festival-goers inside the entry lines, every activity began to feel like an impossible feat. With each line seemingly taking over an hour to reach the end, it was a true testament to the devotion of pickle lovers.

Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano at her 'I Am Alive!' party.

By Stephanie Giunta

In honor of National Stroke Awareness Month, we would like to honor a local survivor, Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano, who is beyond inspirational. Here is her story.

On January 11, 2017, 34-year-old Huntington Village resident Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano, went to work like it was any other day, although she remembers having a bad headache. The passionate history buff and Executive Director at the Huntington Historical Society was making some personal calls during her lunch break. As she sat down to eat her lunch, she suddenly felt dizzy; her coworker asked if she was okay, and she couldn’t speak. Out of nowhere, a simple Wednesday became the day that forever-altered Napolitano’s future: the day she unexpectedly suffered a stroke. 

Once the stroke had occurred, Fortunato-Napolitano couldn’t remember what happened next, though she recounted her story by way of others at the scene. She was rushed to Huntington Hospital, and was then airlifted to North Shore University Hospital, where she resided for two weeks. When she woke up, she still couldn’t speak, had weakness in her right arm and couldn’t walk.

After a stint at the hospital, she was released into a rehab facility, but at the end of her week-long tenure, needed to move back into her parents’ house. Though the mobility in her arm was very low, she was slowly regaining the ability to walk, but couldn’t tackle the stairs up to her front door. She lived with her parents for three weeks, while simultaneously beginning outpatient rehab, seeing a handful of therapists to attempt to win her life back as her own through physical and cognitive recovery.

Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano at her ‘I Am Alive!’ party.

No warning signs 

Doctors were puzzled that a healthy 34-year-old, who had nothing more than a routine headache on the day of her stroke, could suffer something so unexpected and traumatic. At six months post-stroke, Fortunato-Napolitano began seeing a neurologist and underwent in-depth testing to reveal underlying notions of root cause.  She tested negative for everything doctors had assumed she would test positive for. Though they could confirm that the stroke was caused by a clogged blood vessel in her brain, the actual diagnosis remains inconclusive. 

A determined patient

After routinely attending speech therapy for six months, Fortunato-Napolitano still fought to talk. In our interview, she mentioned that she struggled with aphasia for the first two years during her recovery. Her therapist alluded to the fact that her speech would not improve — that she should simply get used to this new way of life. This led her down a dark path of depression, afraid that she would never regain her full ability to communicate with others. 

After 4-5 months, her parents encouraged her to seek a second opinion from another therapist who would work with her past the “6 month window.” As Fortunato-Napolitano stated during our interview, her mother “God bless her soul!” put her in touch with her current speech therapist, Judy Cavallo, who she still sees to this day. Cavallo even provides Fortunato-Napolitano with homework because she asks for it!

In addition to speech therapy, Fortunato-Napolitano continues to see an occupational therapist, Ian MacManus, to aid in her physical disabilities. Seven of her fingers work, but three fingers on her right hand are bent in a fixed manner. She dreams of the ability to wear high heels again, but walking is too difficult in any shoe aside from her signature Doc Martens and Birkenstocks — which she has in a wide variety of colors.  Her right foot cannot be fully-placed on the floor, and only the outside edge can go flat completely. 

To this day, Napolitano still goes to outpatient rehab twice per week (once to her speech therapist and once to her occupational therapist) to improve her skills and continually progress.

New realities 

Prior to the stroke, Fortunato-Napolitano was a writer. She wrote a historic Half Hollow Hills column for Patch Media on a weekly basis, as well as many articles for the Huntington Historical Society. Now, on average, it will take her about three hours to write three paragraphs. She mentioned that this has been the hardest thing for her to overcome from a professional perspective. But Siri is her best friend. She is so grateful for technology, which helps her text, post on social media, and write emails.  

Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano at her ‘I Am Alive!’ party.

A major milestone

Within the first five years of having a stroke, an individual is 50% more likely to suffer from a second stroke in comparison to a person of the same age. So, in January 2022, Fortunato-Napolitano threw herself an “I Am Alive!” party to celebrate meeting this critical milestone. There were over 85 people in attendance, including her neurologist and speech therapist, and she donned a stylish, sparkly green jumpsuit. Not only was this a celebration of how far she had come, but also that statistically, her chances of having another stroke or stroke-like episode would start to significantly decrease.  

Pivotal life lessons

Fortunato-Napolitano is so grateful to be alive. She could have been paralyzed and in a wheelchair; she may not have survived. But now, she makes sure that she lives every day to the fullest. She voluntarily chooses happiness.

Prior to the stroke, she was unhappy about stupid, inconsequential things. Now, Fortunato-Napolitano uses a “whatever!” mentality. She believes that life is worth living and she intends to make the most of the hand that she has been dealt. The biggest lesson she learned from her stroke, she mentioned, was, “I can be unhappy [about that] or I can just be happy. And I choose to be happy all of the time.” 

Fortunato-Napolitano fuels her happiness with her work. This February, she was newly-appointed as the Executive Director of the Greenlawn-Centerport Historical Association. She loves her job and the challenges it provides.

She is also a travel connoisseur — something she has been passionate about from a very young age. Her next destination includes heading to Cleveland on a baseball stadium tour for her husband’s birthday, but the top future spots on her international travel list include Africa, Argentina, Australia, and Turkey.

A message to all stroke survivors 

Fortunato-Napolitano’s hope is that someone in similar shoes reads this article, her story, and becomes happy due to reading it.  She can’t stress enough that you can and will get better — you just can’t stop believing in yourself. At six months post-stroke, her original speech therapist told her she would never speak again. Six years later, Fortunato-Napolitano is carrying on conversations beautifully. Each year, she sees subsequent progression and truly believes that she will continue to improve for the rest of her life.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel even during the darkest and most depressing of times. Her outlook on life has drastically changed from Year 2 to Year 6. She stressed the importance of self-dedication, while also surrounding yourself with a great support system.

Above all, Fortunato-Napolitano is a true inspiration.  She epitomizes optimism, and is dedicated, admirable, and determined. Her new dream is to become a life coach, as she hopes to help others through similar dark and unexpected times. She would love a platform in which to tell her story publicly. Fortunato-Napolitano is a happiness evangelist, a survivor to the nth degree, and only hopes she can inspire others, stroke conquerors or not, to live life to the fullest. 

Follow along with Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano’s journey on Instagram: @ayoungstrokerecovery.

This article first appeared in TBR News Media’s supplement Focus on Health on May 25, 2023.

From left, Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano, Executive Director; Deanne Rathke, Director Emeritus; and Alexandra Leverton, President of the Board of Trustees. Photo courtesy of the Greenlawn-Centerport Historcial Association

The Greenlawn-Centerport Historical Association, a nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve the history of the communities of Greenlawn and Centerport, has announced the selection of Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano as its new Executive Director. 

Ms. Fortunato-Napolitano officially assumed the role on February 6. Deanne Rathke is retiring after having held the position for 20 years. 

“We are very pleased to announce Claudia as the new Director,” reported Deanne. “Its time to pass the job along to the next generation.  Claudia’s skill set will help bring about new members and programs to the organization.  In addition she has a lifelong passion for local history having been born and raised in the Huntington area”

Claudia holds a BA in History, and a MA in Liberal Studies with a concentration in American History, both awarded by Manhattanville College. Previous positions include Executive Director of the Huntington Historical Society and Assistant Historian at the Town Of Huntington.

“I am honored to serve as the Executive Director and thrilled to serve the members of the community,’ remarked Ms. Fortunato-Napolitano. “Deanne is a wonderful role model, and as Director Emeritus she will be a valuable asset for furthering our research, expanding our public programs, educational workshops, and exhibits.”

The mission of the Greenlawn-Centerport Historical Association is to research, collect, record and preserve artifacts, photographs, fine arts, and ephemera of Greenlawn & Centerport. In addition, they promote the preservation of historic structures and maintain a historic Suydam homestead and John Gardiner Farm to provide the public with an opportunity to learn about early life on Long Island.

No sour pickles here! The Greenlawn-Centerport Historical Association hosted its 40th annual Pickle Festival at the John Gardiner Farm in Huntington last Saturday. Hundreds of visitors enjoyed the last weekend of summer eating pickles on a stick, riding the Lollipop Train, navigating a corn maze and enjoying a tractor ride. The event also featured many vendors, live music, fried pickles, roasted corn and, of course, pickles for sale!