UNION, NJ — On the Sunday before Christmas each year, like clockwork, Sam Casternovia gathers his friends and family into a warehouse, where they package up to 120 holiday dinners for local families in need of a festive boost.
It’s a tradition Casternovia started when he saw the need to “give back” while living in Tom’s River in the 1970s, he says. And in 1980, when he opened a new business on Route 22, he brought the ritual with him to Union.
“You reach out to someone, and it’s amazing what happens to your life,” said Casternovia. “We’ve had a lot of great people over the years, and it’s just enjoyable. My daughter is 21 now, and she’s done it every single year of her life. She used to say ‘this is my favorite thing at Christmas.’”
On Sunday, Dec. 20, Casternovia and his partners hand-delivered dinners to about 500 people in Union. They picked up the food from a grocery store, packed it in boxes at a warehouse and watched as a pastor blessed the food.
By that point, they’d already sent out hundreds of letters to homes, which asked if the residents would like to receive the dinner. Casternovia delivers meals to everyone who responds.
“We started with just a few, and it grew through the years. It’s funny, it fluctuates. Some years we’re giving 100 or 120 dinners, and other years we’ll do 60. It depends on how many people get back to us,” said Casternovia. “Most people think it’s some kind of scam.’
It’s important to continue the tradition into 2016 and beyond, said Casternovia, because “these are tough times,” and it’s impossible to tell when people could use help around Christmas time.
“It’s a nice thing to do,” said Casternovia. “There’s been a lot of stuff that’s happened. Some people, you don’t realize, there’s a new car in the driveway or a new house with a sign out in the front. You walk in, there’s no furniture, no food in the refrigerator.”
The dinners are meant to serve eight to 10 people, according to Barbara Kowalczyk, who’s worked with Casternovia for more than 20 years. In that time, she’s tried to help deliver the meals on an annual basis. The dinners come with everything from a large turkey to soup, cookies and juice.
“He just keeps doing this,” said Kowalczyk. “It’s really nice. It’s something he makes a point to get done every year. It’s something where he’s teaching the next generations what it means to give back.”
Not every year has been easy for Casternovia. In the late 1980s, during one of his battles with three different kinds of cancer, Casternovia went from weighing 180 pounds to just 125 pounds. He spent a lot of time fighting with creditors. It felt like his life “was falling apart.”
But Casternovia’s wife, in the holiday spirit, used the last $5,000 in her name to make sure the tradition of giving would stay alive, through at least one more December. The Casternovias have been able to provide the dinners ever since.
“One year, in ‘88 or ‘89, we were broke. We had nothing. I’m sitting downstairs and my wife knew I was unhappy. I was sick, also. I said ‘it’s Christmas, I’ve done it for so many years, and we can’t do it this year,’” said Casternovia. “She says ‘look, I’ve got $5,000 left on this credit card.’ That was a special year. That year we really reached to make it happen.”