WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Chamber of Commerce, West Orange Rotary Club, Lions Club and Orange-West Orange chapter of UNICO hosted their annual Thanksgiving Luncheon at Mayfair Farms on Nov. 21, inviting the founder and president of HEART 9/11, Bill Keegan, to be the guest speaker. Residents listened to Keegan discuss his nonprofit group while enjoying a pre-Thanksgiving meal, and also donated nonperishable food items for the Holy Trinity Food Pantry.
Ken Baris, a member of the WOCC board of directors and the event organizer, welcomed residents to the luncheon.
“I want to give a thought of kindness,” Baris said. “The world is kind of mean today, so look for an opportunity to surprise people in a nice way. Do something nice, it’s actually fun. It doesn’t cost anything and I guarantee, as good as that person you do something for feels, you’ll feel a hundred times better.”
West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi also spoke at the event, expounding on finding comfort during hard times.
“The trick to finding comfort is not to find a way to stop the clock, but to find your own personal Eden,” Parisi said. “May you all enjoy that tomorrow and have a happy Thanksgiving.”
Keegan then took the stage to talk about HEART 9/11, which stands for Healing Emergency Aid Response Team, an organization he founded to serve communities affected by disaster. Keegan is a 20-year veteran of the Port Authority Police Department and a retired lieutenant in the Special Operations Division. He was named the night commander of the rescue and recovery effort at ground zero a day after the 9/11 attacks.
After Keegan retired in 2005, he decided the start the volunteer-run organization.
“I thought about what made me feel good: bringing comfort to others, working with people I like and doing good work,” Keegan said at the event. “I couldn’t go back on the job, so let’s do on a voluntary basis what we used to do for a living.”
Since 2007, HEART 9/11 has grown to more than 400 volunteers and traveled around the world to help with disaster relief efforts. Keegan said the organization has been to Haiti, Africa and spent time in Puerto Rico assisting with cleanup after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
He also talked about why he founded HEART 9/11 after working at ground zero in 2001.
“This was different than anything else I’d ever done,” Keegan said. “Whatever lineup I put in, there were all-stars. With the magnitude of it we felt helpless. First responders are not supposed to feel helpless. We were able to learn how to help and people rushed to help us.”
Keegan closed his remarks by telling those in attendance to do something good for someone else.
“Do something for someone who can’t do anything for you and see who feels better,” he said. “We have a lot to be thankful for and we can do a lot. You can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic