WEST ORANGE, NJ — A retired officer kicked off the Thanksgiving holiday in West Orange with a heartfelt message of helping the less fortunate at a time when they need it most.

Bill Keegan, the guest speaker at the annual Thanksgiving Luncheon hosted by the West Orange Chamber of Commerce (WOCC), Rotary Club, Lions Club and Orange-West UNICO, brought many in the crowd to tears as he shared a heartwarming story about how a national tragedy transformed his life’s mission.

More than 125 people gathered Wednesday at Mayfair Farms to share gratitude and spend time with others in the business community. Attendees enjoyed live holiday music performed by the West Orange High School band and heard from a dynamic speaker who formed a volunteer organization that helps disaster-stricken areas recover.

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“Thanksgiving is a time of reflection and to stand in front of a room of 125 people from so many aspects of our community with the common thread of a love of West Orange and a desire to be active participants and role models is awe-inspiring,” said Ken Baris, chairman of the event and owner of Jordan Baris Inc. Realtors. “The speakers were meaningful, touching and on target. As someone who is about kindness and paying it forward, I could not be prouder to be the chairman of this very special annual event.”

Keegan, a retired lieutenant in the Special Operations Division (SOD) and a 20-year veteran of the Port Authority Police Department, shared his experience of being named the night commander of the rescue and recovery effort at Ground Zero a day after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The work was arduous but meaningful, he said, and the magnitude of it made him question many things about his faith, but ultimately the work changed his life.

“It was the most honorable thing I've ever done in my life,” he said on Wednesday—and although nearly two decades have passed since that moment, there was emotion in Keegan’s voice as he recalled the memories.

Upon retirement in 2005, Keegan had the idea to form a volunteer-run, non-profit that would serve communities impacted by disaster. In 2007, Keegan founded H.E.A.R.T. 9/11, which stands for Healing Emergency Aid Response Team.

“I thought about what made me feel good—bringing comfort to others, working with people I like and doing good work,” said Keegan. “I couldn’t go back on the job, so let’s do it on a voluntary basis what we used to do for a living.”

The organization has been on 105 deployments across the globe—helping communities rebuild after hurricanes, building homes for veterans and created a small city in Haiti that was once known as a place “beneath Hell.” The organization runs on donations from the public.

“Our guest speaker, Bill Keegan, shared the story of what motivated him to form H.E.A.R.T. 9/11 was touching,” said Baris. “This was an event about so much that is great and gave every person who attended inspiration.”

"The presentation was excellent," said West Orange PBA SOA President Mike Cassidy. "Just goes to show, with something so devastating, you can turn things around and really find someone with self-worth to bring you through the travesty."

Attendees also donated canned and non-perishable food items for the Holy Trinity Food Pantry, which serves West Orange residents in need.

The program was sponsored by Bederson LLC, JAG - ONE Physical Therapy, Saint Barnabas Medical Center, Orange/West Orange UNICO, West Orange African American Heritage Organization, Cass Inc. Realtors, Kessler Center for Rehabilitation, British Swim School, Sosa Insurance Group, Jordan Baris Inc. Realtors, Kearny Bank, Arden Courts and Wilshire Caterers.

Many door prizes were contributed by local businesses and were raffled during the 50/50 raffle at the event. The proceeds were donated to H.E.A.R.T 9/11.

"As an attendee of the Thanksgiving Luncheon for over 20 years, I always look forward to sharing goodwill with my West Orange community and those who serve our community so well," said West Orange Fire Chief Anthony Vecchio. "The event proved, once again, that fellowship among friends, neighbors and colleagues is something for which we need to regularly pause and give thanks. Happy Thanksgiving!"