Sunday, July 14, 2024

Looking for unsung heroes

Unsung heroes. With a bit of luck, you will cross paths with such extraordinary individuals once or twice in your lifetime. Usually when you least expect it. And often times, in everyday places, like a ball park, a food bank, a fire station or your local long-term care facility.
In my case, it happened at l’École Poupore in Fort Coulonge, a public elementary school attended by about 225 students, most of them from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Each weekday morning, these kids are greeted warmly by senior citizens who, every school day between September and June, wake up bright and very, very early (5:00 a.m.) with one objective in mind: to make sure that no student enters any of the school’s classrooms on an empty stomach.
The team works under the direction of Lise Maleau, who has managed the breakfast program at l’École Poupore, as well as at l’École St-Pierre, for the past eight years. To say that she takes her job seriously would be somewhat of an understatement. She hasn’t missed a day’s work since joining the program. Not a single one.
God knows that the 64-year-old Pontiac native could be excused for taking a day’s rest from time to time. After all, she has a heart condition, suffers from diabetes and is taking medication to prevent an aneurysm. When asked what explains such dedication, she answers with a look that betrays a certain exasperation with the obviousness of the question: “Les enfants”.
Indeed, she loves the kids. And by all accounts the sentiment is mutual. No breakfast ends without a few heartfelt hugs and words of thanks.
“Over the years, I have come to know most of them – and their families – really well,” she explains.
More importantly, Lise understands that her investment in the lives of the children will pay off substantially one day. “For many, the breakfast served in school is all they will eat before noon. We take pride in the fact that what we do helps kids achieve their academic goals.”
The “we” Lise refers to includes husband Michel Duval, who has been at her side in this work for the last three years, toasting bagels and frying eggs with the dexterity of a short-order cook, which he once was, and good samaritans Barbara Laderoute, Marie Boisvert and Marjorie Romain.
Much could be written about these three part-time samaritans. I know, from having worked with these fine ladies in the past. Suffice to say that their commitment to the kids is rock solid, their relaxed, easygoing manner is key to the volunteers’ durability, and their punctuality would make a monk blush with envy.
Is it to say that all is well? Not exactly. In fact, Lise is very concerned about the future of the program.
“Michel and I aren’t getting any younger. Our declining health (Michel also has a heart condition) makes it difficult to project ourselves in the future. This could be our last year at l’École,” says Lise.
Her few attempts at recruiting other volunteers or a possible successor have so far proven elusive.
“People simply don’t want to have to rise everyday at 5:00 a.m. and work until 9:30 a.m.,”, she says.
That, and the salary. Lise and Michel each get $20 per day for their efforts. An amount of money that barely covers their gasoline cost in the winter time.
Anne-Marie Belleau, vice-principal at l’École Poupore, is keenly aware of the situation. And clearly hopes the present crew will remain on board for the foreseeable future.
“If they leave, we will be in a dire situation. This, at a time when the need for fresh food among our students has never been greater. Many families have fallen into hardship. They are no longer able to afford fruits and vegetables.”
The situation has reached the point where kids have started to ask permission to bring home some of the fruits made available to them at school.
More than ever, the work provided by elders and others in schools such as Poupore fulfils growing needs. Soon, however, these elders will have no choice but to take a needed respite. What will happen then?

Guest editorial by Pierre St-Cyr


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