Ask not what France can do for you …
We visited one of the distributions centers for Restos du Coeur in the Côte d’Or, Burgundy, and had an informal chat with Claire Cornet, President of the Association.
Why join an association?
A proactive way to get involved in your community in France is to join an association, not only for the opportunity to meet people and practice the language but also for the feel-good factor of putting your skills to good use. In this instance we visit Restos du Coeur but there are many options available to suit all interests and inclinations. You may be familiar with this charity. Once a year you see their signs and collection bins peppered all around the country in shops and supermarkets as they launch their nationwide fundraising drive.
Restos du Coeur – Relais du Coeur
The story began with an idea that popular French comedian Coluche had back in 1985. He got together with a group of friends and gathered contributions to feed the less fortunate. He stated that if he could put together maybe one thousand meals that winter he would be consider that he had done something to help. Through his public profile he started a wave of support that grew into a national charity that reached even further into the European food aid program (PEAD). Just last winter the Restos du Coeur-Relais du Coeur distributed 115 million meals—that makes more than 1.5 billion meals since its inception.
Who are they helping?
Today the assistance they provide is not limited to food, they also provide a first point of contact and an attentive ear to create a link towards reinsertion into the social an economic fabric of the community. “There is a misconception about the circumstances surrounding people who come to the Restos du Coeur for assistance,” says Claire Cornet as she shows us around the warehouse, “we are all vulnerable to a reversal of fortune. There are people here who never thought they’d find themselves by the side of the road. Of course some people come because they are unemployed but also there is a large percentage of active people, who have jobs but are not earning enough to make ends meet, and working single parents who find that at the end of the month after they’ve paid for living expenses and childcare there’s little left for groceries. Our volunteers not only provide them with food items and essential toiletries and cleaning products, they also listen and provide guidance to break the cycle of solitude that frequently goes hand in hand with hardship.”
Much more than a meal
By definition Restos du Coeur consider their work to be transitional, a soft place to land after a fall to get you back on your feet again. Means are reviewed case by case every season and a card is issued according to the particular needs of the individual. This card allows access to the distribution centers where food items are arranged as much as possible to resemble a usual market experience. When we visited there were stalls distributing cheese, bread, fruits and vegetables. The focus is on providing balanced meals and volunteers are sensitive to the dignity and privacy of their visitors. There is also a café to have a free coffee and a pastry and a childcare facility where mothers can drop off their children while they visit with volunteers who help them with their paperwork, job search or other formalities. The atmosphere is calm and the volunteers are cheerful and very busy. The association also facilitates access to books, cooking workshops, family holidays and micro-credit financing.
So how can we help?
“There are three main ways to help,” says Claire, “and they are all just as important. The first is to support the petition at the The Airfood Project. Brussels will shortly vote on the fate of EU level funding which for us amounts to 23% of our annual budget. Another 30% comes from our association central distribution center which contributes 600 tons of items per year, and the rest from direct fundraising. Finally, you can become a volunteer. We always need people with languages and an international open mind. Even if the level of French is basic there are ways to help in the distribution centers, driving vehicles, helping with computers. All you need to do is call the center closer to your residence and ask to speak to the volunteer coordinator (coordonnateur des bénévoles). They’ll schedule an appointment to talk about your skills and what you enjoy doing. We train volunteers and invest in their wellbeing so for us what is most important is to find a good fit where the volunteer feels comfortable and derives personal satisfaction from the work. The time availability is not so essential, it could be half a day a week, but what is essential is that they are committed for the long term. A revolving door of volunteers doesn’t help anybody and it becomes difficult to schedule and manage.”
Meet a volunteer
A witness to the philosophy is Paul, busy at the reception desk, an octogenarian volunteer who keeps working while we chat about his recent visit to Washington where his son works at the French Embassy. “I’ve been here for 20 years,” he says, “and I’m only getting started. And to my left here is Chantal, she’s a newbie, she’s been here for four years.” A number of the volunteers first came to the center seeking help and have come full circle and are now helping others in return.
Please contact us if you would like to know more about associations in France. In case this article piqued your interest and you’re considering contributing your time and skills, I leave you with a quote from Oprah, “The love we give away is the only love we keep.”
•Sylvia Davis, Property & Living Editor
with thanks to Claire Cornet and the volunteers at Restos du Coeur of the Côte d’Or.
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