For one Catholic businessman in New York City, Thanksgiving has long been a time of sacrifice and generosity. For each of the past four years, Alphonse Catanese and his wife have donated hundreds of turkeys to needy families in the city.
This year, amid the toll of the coronavirus pandemic, the Cataneses have stepped up their giving to ensure the needy of Brooklyn and Queens still get a fitting Thanksgiving dinner.
“With the help of God, we’ll continue to do it,” Alphonse told CNA.
When Alphonse was a kid, every November his dad would load hundreds of turkeys into a dump truck, pick up Alphonse and his brother from school, and together they would drive to brickyards and supply yards around Brooklyn.
They would visit all the people his father worked with throughout the year, give them a turkey at 12 o’clock on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Then Alphonse’ dad would release all his employees early so they could prepare to celebrate the next day.
“I could never figure out why we used to do this. One day we finally ask our father and he goes, ‘You gotta understand. It’s nice to help people and Thanksgiving is a special time of year,” Alphonse recalled.
Alphonse’ dad died in 2006, and Alphonse and his brother inherited the family business. Since his retirement, Alphonse has done real estate management and development and runs a company that does apartment upgrades and improvements.
“One day, I was sitting around and talking to my wife like, ‘Remember how it used to be this time of the year? We’d go crazy, pick up turkeys, put them in the dump truck, go out and take care of everybody?’” he said.
His wife suggested he revive the tradition, so he approached Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens— for whom he had done construction work in the past— to see what he could do.
Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens has hosted a Turkey and Trimming Giveaway for over a decade. Each person gets a voucher for a turkey and a basket of items such as dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, and stuffing to complete the Thanksgiving meal.
This year they’ve already distributed nearly 1,600 turkeys and 1,200 produce boxes to families in need.
In 2016, Alphonse and his wife Maria became lead sponsors of the giveaway, donating about 700 turkeys. They’ve kept that commitment every year since.
“Anybody can write a check or send a donation. But I gotta tell you, it’s truly a great feeling. You hand that person a turkey— the person will turn and look at you and they say ‘thank you.’ And you know it’s a genuine thank you,” Alphonse commented.
CCBQ has seen demand for its services skyrocket during the pandemic. A spokesman told CNA this week that many of the food pantries they operate year-round have seen a tenfold increase in demand since March.
CCBQ’s twenty food pantries are now serving twice as many families on a regular basis as they were last year, as more and more families turn to the charity for help. All told, CCBQ has served 1.2 million meals since the start of the pandemic, the spokesman said.
This year, the Cataneses stepped up their donation, despite the additional challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to their regular 700 turkeys to Catholic Charities, the Cataneses also donated 200 to a local church.
While their commitment number to Catholic Charities was the same, the availability and cost of the turkeys was affected by the pandemic.
This year, Alphonse said they were forced to purchase larger sized turkeys than usual, at an increased cost. The reason? Smaller turkeys are flying off the shelves this year, making them harder to come by.
While many people are choosing to stay home and have smaller Thanksgiving celebrations this year, this actually means there will likely be a greater number of— albeit smaller— Thanksgiving feasts taking place across the country this year. People are buying smaller turkeys for these smaller gatherings.
For the most part, that shift left only larger turkeys available for Alphonse to purchase.
“On average they were 2-4 pounds larger,” he explained.
Alphonse said his business took a revenue hit during the pandemic, since many construction projects ceased during the lockdown.
But he resolved not to waver from their annual commitment to donate the turkeys, recalling, “There are a lot of people in a position worse than us.”
Alphonse said he will often see the same needy people coming back year after year to get their Thanksgiving turkey.
“There’s definitely a recurring need, and you see people who truly need it…This year we’re going to help 900 people. It’s a small amount compared to the millions of people that are in need, but from our end we’re doing as much as we can.”
Alphonse said he is thankful that he is fortunate enough to be able to help so many people, and he encouraged others to help the poor as much as they are able.
“We take a lot of things for granted, like food on our table. But when you go to the sites at the various neighborhoods and people come out with a basket … you really see that people are in need, and they genuinely appreciate this.”