WEST ORANGE, NJ — Giving thanks was the theme of this year’s Thanksgiving Luncheon, the annual tradition organized by the West Orange Chamber of Commerce, the Orange/West Orange UNICO, the West Orange Lions Club and the Rotary Club of West Orange, held Nov. 25 at Mayfair Farms.
While it may be easy to get caught up in the bustle of the holiday season, township historian Joseph Fagan stressed in his keynote speech that event attendees should never take their loved ones for granted. After all, Fagan pointed out, they will not be around forever.
“I urge everyone to take the time to pause and reflect and appreciate how precious our short time together really is,” Fagan told the audience. “By far the best Thanksgiving gift we will ever receive will be those sitting around our dinner table tomorrow.”
Fagan learned that lesson firsthand with the deaths of his parents, particularly after experiencing two startling moments he believes are more than coincidences. The first, as he recounted in his speech, came after his father’s death, when he was searching for a home for his dad’s beloved tropical fish. He happened to strike up a conversation with an attendant at the gas station near his house, and it turned out the young man was a tropical fish enthusiast, so Fagan offered him his father’s fish. Finding someone as interested in fish as his dad had been was amazing enough to Fagan, but what happened next was truly shocking to him — upon arriving to pick up the fish, the station attendant realized that Fagan’s father had lived in the same house once owned by his own grandfather.
The other uncanny moment Fagan experienced happened while visiting his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in the nursing home one Christmas Eve. Upon arriving at her room, he recalled that she appeared quite sad, so he played a videotape of Perry Como, one of her favorite singers. Immediately she lit up with joy, but eventually Fagan had to go. So he removed the video and, to his surprise and his mother’s pleasure, found that at that very moment Como was performing on television.
Many people would shrug off those experiences as simple instances of kismet, but they are much more than that to Fagan. As he explained to the West Orange Chronicle afterward, not only did they teach him about the power of love — even from beyond the grave — they also showed him the importance of finding meaning in every moment of one’s life, even when times seem the most stressful.
“So often we pursue perfection in our lives,” Fagan said. “And although that’s a noble cause, the true beauty of life lives in the many imperfections life offers.”
Mayor Robert Parisi’s speech echoed a similar sentiment. As Parisi told the audience, one of his favorite country music songs is Trace Adkins’ 2008 hit “You’re Gonna Miss This,” which tells the story of a woman reminded at seemingly embarrassing or harried moments of her life that she will one day look back and wish she could revisit them. The mayor said the song is particularly meaningful to him as he watches his children grow up, reminding him that he should live in the moment and be grateful for the time he has with the people who matter most to him.
Speaking with the Chronicle after the luncheon, Parisi said that is a lesson he tries to teach his own children, and one he hopes the residents of West Orange take to heart.
“Whether you’re a teenager, in your 20s or building your own family, every moment’s precious,” Parisi said. “We get too bogged down with the nitty-gritty of every day sometimes to realize that. So sometimes it’s good to pause and just be grateful for the moment that we’re in and the blessings that we’re surrounded with.”
The Chamber of Commerce is certainly grateful for the generosity of event-goers. It was announced that the luncheon’s 50/50 raffle raised approximately $600, with half of that amount going to the Holy Trinity-West Orange Food Pantry.
Giving back to the community is indeed a major part of this occasion each year, according to Chamber event committee Chairman Ken Baris. As enjoyable as it is to connect with old friends and network with new ones, Baris said the event also serves as a vital time for people to consider the blessings in their lives and how they can use them to help others. That is why the event is held to commemorate Thanksgiving, he said.
“Thanksgiving is a time of reflection and appreciation,” Baris told the Chronicle before the festivities began. “(The luncheon) is a nice event, and it’s a meaningful event.”
It is also a well-attended one. It was announced that approximately 140 people participated in the gathering this year, representing all four of West Orange’s largest service organizations. The fact that so many people were willing to come together in the name of philanthropy shows just how special the community is, Baris said.
Of course, the luncheon is not the only time that residents give back. UNICO President Frank Paolercio told the Chronicle that his Orange/West Orange chapter of the national Italian-American service organization has been serving the local community for more than 60 years, raising money for numerous causes including food banks, the Police Athletic League, the Burn Center at St. Barnabas and five high school scholarships. In the past, Paolercio said it also built the Garden for the Exceptional Child at the Katz Civic Center so that special needs children can learn to plant and grow things. For all of its efforts, he said the Orange/West Orange chapter even won the model chapter award at UNICO’s national convention this year.
But recognition aside, Paolercio said what matters most to him and his fellow UNICO members is helping those in need. He said his organization will continue to participate in the luncheon and in any other way it can to do so.
“More than ever, there are a lot of needy people out there,” Paolercio said prior to the event. “If we can’t help them, who’s going to help them?”
The West Orange Lions Club also does a lot in town, specifically raising money for the blind through events such as its annual spaghetti dinner. It even offered a mobile eye-care unit at the recent West Orange Health Fair.
According to Lions Club member Stephen Christiano, the organization is always looking for new members. In fact, as someone who grew up in West Orange, knows the generous nature of the community and is now raising his family in town, Christiano encouraged all residents to participate in the Lions Club or in another service group.
“We’re all in this together,” Christiano told the Chronicle before the event. “We have many needs in the community, so there are many chances to help.”
There are also many people willing to help, West Orange Township Council President Jerry Guarino said. Guarino told the Chronicle he is proud to live in a town filled with residents constantly putting their differences aside to come together for the good of the community. He said there are few communities as giving as West Orange, which is why he was grateful to attend an event that celebrates the township’s philanthropy.
“Between the Chamber, UNICO, Rotary, the Lions Club and all the members of the community, this shows you how much West Orange cares about the community and the people who are involved and continue to give that extra mile,” Guarino said after the luncheon had ended. “We should all be thankful.”