At 64, Alfredo Lupi, a janitor at a factory in Graffignana, an industrial town southeast of Milan, was less than three years away from his retirement, a threshold that was at once incredibly close but impossibly far.
A cognitive impairment that he had almost since birth was making his job more difficult by the day. The condition was too debilitating for him to work without discomfort, but quitting would have been hard to afford without a pension.
That's where his co-workers came in.
One evening earlier this month, after his shift ended, the employees of the Senna Inox factory gathered to unveil a surprise for Lupi. He could retire early. In fact, he could retire now.
Bewildered at first, Lupi slowly understood. "You gave me my pension," he said, visibly moved. "Thank you."
Technically, his colleagues gave him something else: vacation days. They had transferred some of their own allotment — some gave more days, some gave less, but all gave something. That allowed him to stop working but meant he could remain on the books at the Senna Inox factory and collect a salary until he reached the retirement age of 67.
"In the last few months, he was visibly tired and had a hard time working," said Piera, one of Lupi's colleagues, who declined to give her last name because she did not want publicity for herself. "This was a collective effort. We all felt it was not fair that if he quit, he would have to stay home with no paycheck for two years."
The practice of donating personal vacation days to colleagues in need is increasingly popular in Italy. In recent years, the story of a mother who was given the equivalent of three years to take care of her disabled son, as well as tales of time off donated to hospital workers who have young children and no time to spend with them, have made headlines in Italy.
But Lupi's case was unusual because all 50 of his colleagues pitched in, collecting 20 months' worth of working days. "We gave up a little of our free time, yes," Piera said. "But this was more important."
Still, for all of their generosity, the employees hadn't collected enough time, but Senna Inox rounded things off by agreeing to pay him for the remaining year he would need to reach retirement age.
"You might see it as a big present, but we see it as an investment in solidarity," said Pietro Senna, one of the four brothers who run the factory founded by their grandfather in 1950. "We are not depriving ourselves of anything; quite the opposite."
Senna said that the vast majority of their employees at the factory, which designs and produces equipment for the pharmaceutical and food production industries, work there for their entire careers.
"We like each other" and consider the work a mission, he said. "I go nowhere without them, and we are there when they need us."
Lupi has always been a fixture in Graffignana, which has a population of about 2,600 and is where NBA star Danilo Gallinari grew up.
Lupi normally participated in the town's social activities, playing the shepherd in the annual Dec. 13 celebrations for St. Lucy — the bearer of light in the winter darkness, and a particularly beloved saint in northern Italy — that a local parish organizes for children. Afterward, Lupi would bring candies to his colleagues at the factory.
"We are fewer than 2,600 people here, so solidarity is natural," said Margherita Muzzi, the mayor of Graffignana.
Alessandro Lupi, 51, Alfredo Lupi's brother and a colleague at Senna Inox, where he is a technical manager, said he was a bit perplexed when his colleagues told him of their plan.
"I feared retiring would not be good for him," he said. "He needs to have people around him, and maybe being at home with our mother would be isolating for him with time."
But Senna reassured him that his brother could come visit whenever he liked.
"He said that the doors here are wide open for Alfredo," Alessandro Lupi said. "And so are their hearts."