When Manuel Zambrano, 40, and his family head to NYRR Open Runs on Tuesdays at Brooklyn Bridge Park, they have enough participants to form their own relay team.
Between Manuel, his three sisters and their spouses, and their shared children — who range in age from 16 months to 17 years — 19 family members regularly hit the pavement at Pier 6.
Manuel, a bus driver and 16-year veteran of the MTA from Bensonhurst, first got into running when his baby girl Angelique was born with a cleft lip, and he ran his first NYRR Open Run in March to raise awareness for Operation Smiles. “Before then, I had no clue what a cleft lip was,” he said.
Then when tragedy struck, and his sister Margarita lost her baby Grace at 1-day-old, he said wanted to find a family activity that they could all do together that would help everyone channel their grief.
“We were all devastated, and I was just getting over my baby’s surgeries. So I tried to think of a way to get the family to keep moving,” said Manuel.
Manuel knew that three of the families’ kids were Young Runners at IS 88 in Park Slope and that some of the other kids had interest in running as well, so he started bringing family members out to run little by little until the entire extended family started showing up each week, including Manuel’s youngest daughter Angelique, who at 16 months of age is content to “run” in her stroller.
The inspiration behind the “Smiles From Heaven” t-shirts that the whole family wears came from Angelique after she was born with a cleft lip and Manuel realized how lucky the family was to have the wherewithal and resources necessary to get her the surgery she needed. Manuel learned that many families living in impoverished areas without adequate medical facilities would not have been as lucky, so when he got in to the 2016 TCS NYC Marathon through the drawing, he decided to raise funds for others not as fortunate as he as a way to give back.
“Everyone asks about the nice name, and I tell them Smiles is for my daughter who was born with a cleft lip, and Heaven is for my sister’s baby in heaven,” said Manuel.
Manuel says that NYRR Open Run helps to “bring all of us together” and is an “amazing family activity.” Early on Tuesday mornings, they all start calling each other excitedly to talk about the evening’s run and to discuss what snacks each family will be bringing for the kids.
Manuel loves the idea that the kids are growing up in a “running family” and will no doubt make exercise a priority in their lives as they get older.