Westfield Rotary Club Helps Homeless Veterans

(above, l-r) Westfield Rotary Club President Barbra Frantz, Esq. holding a boot, and Rotarian Burim Regjaj, owner of Outtahand Pizza, holding a different type of boot. Only new clothing is donated to the homeless veterans living at Lyons VA facility.
Courtesy photo

Westfield Rotary Helps Homeless Veterans

Submitted by Dr. D. Michael Hart

During a recent meeting, members of the Westfield Rotary Club were privileged to hear from one of their own, Burim Regjaj, as he shared the story behind his initiative to aid homeless veterans. 

Raised in Kosovo, a territory of the former Yugoslavia, Burim found himself at the young age of 19 was drafted to serve in the Yugoslavian Army during the lead-up to the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts. However, he refused to participate in the violence and instead fled to the United States. In 1999, the situation in Kosovo escalated to full-blown combat. Burim’s hometown, along with over 100,000 other homes, was burned to the ground by the Serbian army. He was forced to watch as his community was torn apart and half of its population was forcibly expelled across the borders.

Under the leadership of the United States, a coalition of 68 countries intervened to stop the mass expulsion and slaughter of the Albanian majority in Kosovo. After 72 days of intense bombardment, the US-led coalition emerged victorious, allowing the Albanian population to return to their homes. Burim was deeply moved by the professionalism and bravery of the American soldiers as they entered the newly liberated Kosovo. 

The memory of their toughness and impressive military equipment remains etched in his mind to this day. In the US, Burim took on various jobs, including working in restaurants and real estate, to support himself as he pursued higher education. He eventually earned a degree in business and, along with his brother, opened their own pizzeria in Westfield called Outta Hand Pizza, located on South Avenue.

Following the opening of his pizza shop, a man entered the establishment who was unable to afford a meal. It was later discovered that this man was a veteran of the Kosovo war, and it was disheartening to see the decline he had experienced. In an act of kindness, the owner Burim offered the veteran a free meal, which sparked an idea – why not involve the Westfield community? This gave rise to the “Prepay a Meal For a Veteran” program, where individuals could pre-pay for a meal for a veteran and the pizzeria would match it by 20 percent. As the word spread, funds were collected to provide free meals for veterans at the pizzeria. However, the response from the residents of Westfield was overwhelming, and there were more prepaid meals than there were veterans. As a result, extra food was brought to the veterans at Lyons VA, where Burim learned about the needs of homeless veterans living there.

Over time, Burim discovered another organization in New York called “General Needs, Inc” that helps veterans by purchasing clothing wholesale. He collaborated with them to provide the veterans at Lyons VA with essential items such as winter coats, insulated pants, spring jackets, boots, t-shirts, underwear, socks, towels, duffle bags, and toiletries. Before ordering and delivering the items approximately 10 times a year, Burim would determine the sizes of the veterans in need.

The Rotary Club of Westfield has been a strong supporter of this project for several years and is now joined by five other local Rotary clubs. Together, they have distributed over $50,000 worth of clothing and supplies to the veterans in 19 monthly distributions. Even the school children of Westfield got involved during the holidays by making 1500 greeting cards to accompany the gift-wrapped boxes containing hats, gloves, and scarves for the veterans. This act of kindness and generosity has left a lasting impact on the community and has brought much-needed support to the deserving veterans.

Despite the sacrifices of many brave veterans who have volunteered to protect our country, many are left with lasting physical or mental wounds as a result of war. Tragically, this leads to an average of 22 veterans taking their own lives every day, totaling over 7,000 deaths each year. While the VA system offers some support, it is the Rotary clubs that truly step in to fill the gaps and provide necessary aid.

If you want to contribute to this cause, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to The Westfield Rotary Club Foundation at 416 East Dudley Ave, Westfield, NJ, 07090. Your generous support will go towards purchasing much-needed new clothing for homeless veterans.

But the Rotary club’s efforts don’t stop there. Burim has spearheaded a second project in Kosovo to help impoverished Roma school children. Thanks to the generosity of the Rotary club, 5 learning centers in Kosovo now have iPads and 114 backpacks filled with essential school supplies for an entire year.

The Rotary club takes on major projects such as aiding homeless veterans, collecting used bicycles to send to developing countries, providing food for local food insecure, and working towards eradicating Polio worldwide. This year alone, the club plans to distribute $35,000 in community grants. Since 1967, they have also awarded $3.5 million in scholarships to 1,800 deserving students. All Westfield students, regardless of where they attend high school, can apply for scholarships by obtaining an application through the WHS guidance department or by contacting the club directly.

The Rotary Club of Westfield meets the first three Tuesdays of each month for lunch at noon, at Limani Seafood Grill on North Ave. Guests are always welcome. For information check out the website westfieldrotary.com  or contact club secretary Dr. D. Michael Hart by email at drmhart@yahoo.com.

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