julio with food tray at YM&YWHA

Putting the Giving Back into Thanksgiving

We all know the typical cliché that this is the time of year of giving. It’s the time where we try to take from the good we have and share it with our neighbors and friends. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but something we all strive for.

As most of us sat down to enjoy our turkey and dressing with our families, one Y staff member was working hard to provide a memorable Thanksgiving meal for the needy. We all know Julio Aviles, the Center for Adults Living Well Head Chef. But what most of us don’t know is that Julio and his family have spent the last 22 Thanksgivings preparing a free communal meal in the Bronx for those less fortunate than us.

The story starts 23 years ago. “My mother, Iris, was raising 4 children with no money for Thanksgiving dinner, so we had to go to a shelter to eat. Ever since then, my mother says whatever she has she will give out to people on Thanksgiving no matter what. We wanted to give out food to the homeless, the less fortunate, and people who are alone.”

What started as a simple good deed turned into a memorable tradition. Every Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Julio, his mother, 5 sisters, 2 nephews, and a handful of extended family and close friends cook all through the night to prepare the meal. They drive 30 minutes north to the Pleasantville Country Club, who donated their kitchen for free this year, and cook until the break of dawn.

After only a few hours of sleep, the team starts to prepare the meal at 9AM on Thanksgiving morning at PS51 (formerly St. Martin of Tours). The meal begins at 12PM and lasts until 5PM. Only after hours worth of cleanup is the day done for the family. “Our last 3 Thanksgivings have been on Friday, we are just too tired!”

“The need is horrible” says Julio. “We usually get around 500 people who show up. This year our numbers went up, unfortunately.” Julio explained how they have had the same core of volunteers show up to help for 22 years. Volunteers include family friends, as well as the principal of PS51. What is really moving is to see those who have been fed return years later to volunteer. “The word is getting out and people are getting fed.”

Thanksgiving is all about the turkey, but where do you find enough turkey to feed so many hungry mouths? Thanks to the generosity of Mount Carmel Pharmacy and the Paganelli family, the entire shopping list is completely donated. “We started with 20 turkeys. Now we are up to 32 this year!” The Paganelli family also assists in volunteering.

The meal has become a staple in the community, but Julio and his family still work hard to spread the word. About two weeks before Thanksgiving they start posting on social media and begin passing out flyer in the neighborhood.

“Every year you see the cases we get choked up on. Towards the end of the meal this year a man came in, and he kneeled down on the floor and started to pray, thanking everyone. We told him to please stand and enjoy your meal! We then sat and ate with him, it was really touching.”

Julio’s family has been going strong for 22 years, and they don’t plan on stopping. The only question is what more can they do? One wish of theirs is to be able to provide toys on Christmas for children in need.

The Y is proud to have someone like Julio. We all are appreciative of the important work that you do. If you are interesting of helping Julio this holiday season with organizing a toy drive, or if signing for a volunteer shift for next Thanksgiving please reach out to Julio directly.

About the Y
Established in 1917, the YM&YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood (the Y) is Northern Manhattan’s premier Jewish community center — serving an ethnically and socio-economically diverse constituency — improving the quality of life for people of all ages through critical social services and innovative programs in health, wellness, education, and social justice, while promoting diversity and inclusion, and caring for those in need.

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