The first Thanksgiving after Franchesca Alvarado, then 22, went missing during what was supposed to be a quick jaunt to Atlantic City, her sisters descended on the shore town. Their mission? To give out food to the needy. And, chiefly, to raise awareness in the hopes their loved one would be found.
"Last year, I was just really depressed and I couldn't picture myself having Thanksgiving inside a home with a family," Alvarado's sister, Frances Mia Casteing, said Wednesday. "To be honest, Franchesca was the majority of my family. She lived with me through the years. We raised our daughters together. Last year, we were going to bake our first turkey together. When she went missing, I said, 'I'm just going to take the turkey we were going to make and go to Atlantic City.'"
It is a pilgrimage Casteing has made often since March 13, 2012, when Alvarado left her Hunting Park apartment to visit Atlantic City with a friend.
He returned. She did not. Her family reported her missing March 17. He agreed to be questioned by police but got a lawyer when asked to take a polygraph. The investigation hit a wall, then seemed to fizzle out.
Frustrated by the lack of movement, Alvarado's sisters and a band of supporters — who christened themselves "Team Cheka" — began staging regular trips to the last place the young mother had been seen. The last place her cell phone had been used. The place where, according to her friend, she walked out of a hotel room in the middle of the night, and seemingly walked off the face of the earth.
Several times a week, they papered casinos, hotels and boardwalk storefronts with flyers bearing Alvarado's face and their phone numbers. They canvassed the streets, asking anyone they met to please just take a look at a picture. Maybe they'd seen her.
So it was in some ways unsurprising that Team Cheka decided last Thanksgiving to travel to Atlantic City, a place that embodied their highest hopes - and also the possibility of realizing their darkest fears. They brought only one turkey, one tray of rice and a salad to their informal giveaway. But, as they stood on the boardwalk prepared to dole out necessities, they were instead overwhelmed by the volume of donations they received. Passersby fortified them with supplies ranging from food to strollers, which Team Cheka then redistributed to needy residents around the city.
"I really was out there to feed into the energy, the positivity," Casteing said. "I wanted to go out there to be as close to Cheka as possible. I also wanted to give back to the world, because I knew eventually the world would give me back Franchesca."
The world acquiesced but, as always, it wasn't in the way anyone expected — or hoped. A fisherman in September found a severed foot washed ashore at Corson's Inlet State Park in Ocean City. A DNA test revealed the appendage belonged to Alvarado.
"It's been very, very difficult," Casteing said of the gruesome find's aftermath. "It's just been a whole thing of trying to accept this nightmare as our new reality."
The hardest part was helping Alvarado's daughter Janiah, now 4, understand her mother is not coming back. Casteing tells her Cheka is in heaven. "At first she was happy about it," Casteing said. "It gave her a sense of peace. But now, she's starting to ask questions. She's realized in order to get to heaven, you have to die, and she wants to know how mommy died."
It's something many people want to know but few, if any, can answer.
Detectives have resumed questioning in the investigation, according to Casteing. Alvarado's family has met with Ocean City police officers and Ocean County prosecutors. Still, the rest of her body has not been located. Her cause of death has not been determined. And no suspects have been identified in connection with the case.
Casteing never expected to spend a second Thanksgiving down the shore. But she found inspiration the day of the Puerto Rican Day parade, when she traveled to Atlantic City to hand out yet more flyers. "A woman came up to me, and she was so excited to see me," Casteing said. "She said, 'You fed my whole family on Thanksgiving. If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't have had a meal.'"
So Team Cheka will make the trip again this year, braving frigid temperatures and a formidable storm to hand out foodstuffs and, of course, flyers. "Honestly, I thought Franchesca would come back home by now. I didn't think it would take this long," Casteing said. "But Franchesca did come back home. We did find her foot. That gave me more affirmation I was meant to be there last year and that I should do it again.
"Last year, it was therapeutic for me to go out there. This year, it's more to give back to the universe, because the universe did give me something back, though it's something that I never thought would happen to our lives."
And, due to an outpouring of support drawn by publicity surrounding Alvarado's case - much of it garnered through social media - Team Cheka will be armed with a much larger arsenal of supplies.
"This year, people have been donating to the cause and helping more," Casteing said. "We have clothes to give out, full meals to give out, two turkeys to give out. We've made desserts for them. We have sneakers and blankets for the homeless out there. And we have 2,000 flyers we're going to give out to the neighborhood, as well as local hotels and places on the boardwalk, just to see if someone speaks up, now that we know something did happen in Atlantic City. We just don't know what."
And so Team Cheka's crusade continues, though it has shifted from bringing Alvarado safely home to bringing her body to a final resting place, as well as justice to those responsible for her death.
"I honestly hope that we find Franchesca - that's been my mission since day one," Casteing said. "Even though we found a part of her, I'm not satisfied, I'm not settled and I'm not going to settle for that.
"My second goal is to find justice for her. If we live in a city where this crime is such the norm and people dying, getting murdered and disappearing is the norm - this was never supposed to happen to Franchesca. This is far from normal in our lives. Whoever did this deserves to be punished, to go to jail or to have whatever happens happen to them."
Whenever Casteing feels her resolve is flagging, she turns to Alvarado's daughter, who looks more like her mother every day. "Janiah is going to be 18 years old one day," Casteing said. "She's going to want to Google her mother and find out what happened to her. At least she can find out her aunt never gave up on her mom, that she tried her hardest to find her. And, if she never found her, that she found out who did what to her and brought them to justice. She's my ultimate child, my ultimate motivation now. It's like I have to find out what happened, for her."