Thanksgiving lunch highlights community, strength, giving

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Chamber of Commerce, West Orange Lions Club, West Orange Rotary Club and Orange/West Orange UNICO hosted their annual Community Thanksgiving Luncheon on Nov. 27, bringing residents together at Mayfair Farms to celebrate the holiday and hear guest speaker Barbara Warter. Mayor Robert Parisi also spoke at the event.

“We all give up on childhood notions of fame and glory,” the mayor said. “We give up on the fantasies of getting in a car and just driving. But we will never again be as young as we are now. Each year at this time I think about the daily obstacles we face: bills, deadlines. But I acknowledge that despite those challenges, we are doing just fine. I hope that you too find that peace this Thanksgiving, this Christmas, this holiday season.”

Warter, who served as keynote speaker, told guests at the luncheon about the foundation she and her family started. Warter is the founder and president of the nonprofit Warter Strong Foundation, which supports charities that help people. It began in 2014 as a bone marrow drive for Warter’s husband, Oren, who had been diagnosed with leukemia. Oren Warter died in 2015 and, shortly after Barbara Warter remarried in 2017, her oldest son, Ryan, died unexpectedly.

“When so many of us find it challenging to find the good in daily life, what do you do when life throws you a curveball?” Warter asked in her speech, adding, “We chose to look at the happy instead of the sad.”

Ryan Warter had special needs, and the Warter Strong Foundation supports the nonprofit Phoenix Center, which serves educational, behavioral and therapeutic needs of students with disabilities; Sharing Seats, an organization that provides children with illnesses with event tickets that would otherwise go unused; and Lifetown, an accessible recreation center for people with special needs.

In honor of Oren Warter, the foundation has raised $52,000 and registered more than 100 people with Gift of Life, a bone marrow registry that finds matches for people with blood cancer and immune disorders. The foundation also works with the New Jersey Sharing Network, an organization that matches people who need organ and tissue transplants.

“Everything we do is now in honor of Ryan and Oren,” Warter said. “The Warter Strong Foundation is about an outlook. We found our outlook: Do happy. We understand that life can be unpredictable, yet we can still find happy every day.”

The phrase came from a meeting that Warter had with her family as they were trying to figure out what the message of the foundation would be.

“Every day you can wake up and do something happy. It’s not easy to battle an illness or see your child struggle in sports or in school or with friends,” Warter said. “I get it, life has challenges. Life can be hard. Happy is a verb. Do happy.”

Elise Luciano also spoke at the event about her daughter, Veronica DePauli, a Gregory Elementary School third-grader, who needs a bone marrow donation to treat her osteopetrosis, a disease that makes bones abnormally dense and prone to breaking. 

“One thing remains, which is hope that her donor is out there,” Luciano said, encouraging those in the audience to add their name to the bone marrow registry. “We hope that you become a lifesaver by joining.” 

Photos by Amanda Valentovic