It all started at Christmas time 14 years ago, when then five-year-old Annalysa Di Genova spotted a man sitting outside in the cold, clasping a cup of change.
Sitting across from her father at a local eatery, she asked him what the man was doing. He told her he was asking people for money to buy food.
“So I was like, ‘OK, let me just go give him my bagel,” said Di Genova, now 19.
“He was like, ‘No, no, you’re hungry, eat. We’re going to buy him a bagel and a coffee.’ And that’s what we did.”
Then, she saw another person experiencing homelessness, prompting her father to buy a second meal for that man.
“After that I was like, ‘You know what, dad, I want to do this every single year,'” said Di Genova.
Since that day, the father-daughter duo has handed out thousands of meals and bags of clothes every Christmas to the city’s most vulnerable population.
The project started in the family’s kitchen but has since expanded to the basement of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Consolata church, where roughly a dozen volunteers came together Saturday to help prepare the food and gather up the donations that will be hand-delivered to those living on the streets as well as to the city’s shelters Saturday night.
Di Genova says this project is her way of giving back to those less fortunate than her, which helps her get into the holiday spirit.
“It’s Christmas for them, too,” she said. “The main goal is just to see them happy and to see that they’re not alone.”
Di Genova’s father says his goal is to inspire younger generations to step up and help out.
“I want them involved to see how my daughter learned,” said Febo Di Genova. “We need to be grateful for what we have that others don’t have.”
The project relies heavily on private donations from people across the island, such as ingredients for sandwiches, winter clothes and other essential supplies that will be added to the care packages.
Several companies have also gotten on board, donating new winter jackets, socks, hats and gloves every year.
“It doesn’t make a difference how much you give,” said Febo. “It’s as long as you give and you want to help the next.”
It’s an important message Lia Gentile wanted to pass on to her two teenagers when she began volunteering with them several years ago.
She says she wanted to expose her kids to the fact that “life is not always roses and there are people that are wanting a simple thing like a sandwich.”
“They’re so appreciative,” she said of the people who receive the care packages. “You can tell that they appreciate that someone thought of them.”
For Di Genova, the annual project isn’t the end. She wants to open up a soup kitchen at her church going forward as well as develop a way to get basic groceries to all those in need.
“I won’t stop because it brings me joy, it brings me happiness,” she said. “It’s just a little thank you that I give to the people and to the world.”