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Turkeys, just the way you like it

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There are many ways to cook a turkey. Maybe even 100.

Volunteers at Caring for Friends will likely test that theory as they handed out 100 turkeys at St. Thomas Aquinas Church at 1719 Morris St. on Sunday.

The free frozen birds went to residents in the very diverse surrounding neighborhood in the Newbold section of South Philadelphia. Instead of giving out prepared frozen meals this year, organizers decided to give a figurative blank canvas so recipients can make Thanksgiving dinner whichever way they choose.

“Our main lifeline is usually that we pre-make meals, put them in trays and they can throw them in the microwave,” said Hank Rossi, vice president of Caring for Friends, who was raised in St. Thomas’ parish. “But, in this case, turkeys would be better. We have so much diversity in our neighborhood. They all cook it differently. (Father Dominic Tung at St. Thomas Aquinas) said they’d rather have the turkeys rather than the meals.”

The turkey handout was an extension of the foundation of work Caring for Friends has built over the last 46 years. 

First known as Aid for Friends before formally switching its name to Caring for Friends a few years ago, the organization began serving meals to elderly members of the community who had trouble caring for themselves.

Founder Rita Schiavone began bringing frozen home-cooked meals to church to give to parishioners in need. She saw people in the community needed the food but also craved human interaction so she enlisted the help of her friends in the Christian Family Movement, fellow parishioners from her parish at St. Jerome in the Holme Circle section of Northeast Philadelphia and members of the Frankford YWCA. It spread to several other parishes across the city and beyond.

“They would make announcements at the local churches that if you were making any extra food, bring it to church next week and we will distribute it to the shut-ins in Philadelphia,” Rossi said. “It would mainly center around elderly people who couldn’t cook for themselves and live alone. We would distribute those meals to them and spend an hour of companionship with them, making sure they went to their doctor’s appointments. Things that family members should have been doing, but weren’t.”

A weekly food bank was started at St. Thomas to serve the diverse population. On Friday mornings, giving out fresh fruit, meats, produce and canned items to whoever shows up. 

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Sunday’s event, which took place after 10 a.m. Mass, went a step further. It helped feed people in the neighborhood but also respected their heritage. 

“The area has a lot of Vietnamese, Korean, Indonesian, Malaysians, some Italians and African Americans,” Rossi said. “Where else is there a blending of all those nationalities? St. Thomas has it all going on in one parish.”

The turkey handout was financed by Baldi Funeral Home at 1331 S. Broad St. and organized by Caring for Friends, which helped distribute 100 coupons for turkey pickups. It wasn’t the first time Baldi stepped up to help those in need.

“Everything that Baldi does in that area, the people appreciate greatly,” Rossi said. “We had the food pantry in the summertime but we weren’t able to give them any refrigerated items because we didn’t have refrigerators. He went out and bought commercial refrigerators for the food pantry so we could give them even more stuff.”

Caring for Friends has now ballooned to 16,000 volunteers and a network of more than 250 meal centers and religious organizations. It uses a large warehouse on Townsend Road in Northeast Philly and will have another one in Essington soon. The organization has seen a major recent uptick in the services it provides.

“Up until last year, we distributed 4 million pounds of food to the needy families in Philadelphia,” Rossi said. “Last year, we distributed 20 million pounds of food.”

In addition to the home visits and meal deliveries, Caring for Friends provides aid and advocacy, including caregiver support and safety assessments, to help residents to remain in their own homes and maintain their independence.

Sunday’s event was a prime example that hits close to home.

“It’s good to give back to the community that I came from,” Rossi said. “The community has changed but it’s still the same. Knowing that you’re helping other people is immense. It makes you feel good.”

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