Christmas is coming and is accompanied by a deluge of presents ; New Year’s Eve is close behind, with its fragrance of good food and festivities. For all of us? No, because on the street it’s colder than ever and empty stomachs are painful. However, in France and Belgium two successful initiatives have been launched aiming to organize a Christmas for homeless and disadvantaged people.
The holidays in December are seemingly synonymous with feast and gastronomy – at least for many of us. But an increasing number of families cannot afford this kind of expense: that’s what the Opération Thermos wants to tackle. The operation was born in Brussels one night during the difficult winter of 1986-1987. Boy scouts coming back from a week-end were called out to by a woman and her disabled child sleeping in the station. They soon learned that each night, in the station and its surroundings, other people were in the same situation. A few hours later, they came back with sandwiches, coffee, blankets and clothes. About fifteen scout groups in the region then took over: Opération Thermos was born. It has been in place every winter for twenty years now – offering hot meals and comfort to those who need it.
The association’s statues summarize its goal: “struggling against exclusion, through social, nutritional, legal or medical assistance”. The main activity of the association is the furnishment of hot meals in the Central Station of Brussels (ideally daily).
Opération Thermos is run exclusively by volunteers and without any public funding. Gifts, donations and volunteer work are the only resources. There, the Homeless of Brussels find a warm welcome and a great comfort: some of them confess that they do not speak to anyone during the day, and admit to being treated like pariahs most of the time.
From 1987-1988, a local branch appeared in Liège. The twin association also offers a night shelter, open from October to April. In the winter 2007-2008, Opération Thermos distributed in Liège 17.000 meals and provided 4500 overnight stays! If this looks low to you, just remember that Liège has only 200 000 habitants.
Belgians can be proud of it. The idea crossed the borders and nested in France: I discovered that Lille and Roubaix also developed similar operations. Once a week all winter long, volunteers go all over the streets to meet the forgotten people.For more information about the associations:
Do you know Coluche? The (very) famous French actor and humorist is etched in the collective memory for his acidic humor and courageous standpoints on political and social issues. In 1985 he resolved to use his celebrity to benefit the less-fortunate. His idea was to support soup kitchens by enlisting the help of well-known singers and actors.
The first Restos opened in December 1985 and the organization has grown in number since. No less than 8,5 millions meals were distributed the first winter by 5000 volunteers! The initiative goes along with La Chanson des Restos, composed by Jean-Jacques Goldman, another singing star in France.
A bevy of (French) stars – the self-titles “Enfoirés”- gave expansive media exposure to the operation: Jean-Jacques Goldman, Yves Montand, Nathalie Baye, Michel Platini and Michel Drucker. Later Michel Sardou, Johnny Hallyday, Véronique Sanson, Eddy Mitchell, Salvatore Adamo…
Each year, the Enfoirés highlight the work of volunteers and remind the audience to make donations. In addition, each Enfoiré transfers his benefits to the Restaus.
It has now become a very popular event. Tickets for the concert in January have been on sale for a few days now: Paris Bercy – seven concerts on national scale – 10,7 millions viewers in 2008! This represents a 48.6% market share (France has 65 millions inhabitants).
Nowadays, Restos du Cœur rely on 40 000 volunteers divided into regional branches under a national federation. Training is provided in order to learn, for example, how to run a “resto”, how to provide moral support or how to animate workshops and activities.
Services rapidly expanded beyond the original distribution of hot meals: “Bébés [babies] du coeur”, help finding housing, employment assistance, tutoring, and access to cultural events & leisure activities. Those who need it can have access to computers and Internet, cinema, holidays, etc. Not to mention the fight against illiteracy, the food packages, the free showers and haircuts, etc.
In Belgium there are sixteen Restos – the first of which was opened by Coluche himself in February 1986. Almost 600 volunteers provide hot meals and manage donations. Medical-social-legal assistance is also proposed.
In many cases, the branch runs only on donations and fundraising efforts: charities, parishes, local shopkeepers, scout groups and private individuals often contribute. In 2006, Belgian Restaus du Coeur prepared 400.841 meals and packages (Belgium counts 10,6 millions inhabitants).
Annually, the volunteer work of thousands of individuals makes Christmas a feast for those usually left behind. Charities never refuse a helping hand 🙂 Don’t wait, participate!Restos du Coeur
Dailymotion: Journal télévisé novembre 2008 – Liège