Jean-Noel Cormier got his first glimpse of poverty – and a desire to help – in his childhood in Bouctouche, N.B.
"It was a small village," he said. "We were not that rich. But we had kids poorer than us," said the national president-elect of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SSVP).
He remembers going to get some of the poorer kids to encourage them to go to school. They drank water from mason jars, he said, too poor to afford drinking glasses. "It kind of stayed with me," Cormier said.
There was one family with 21 children in the house and only 10 pairs of boots. The first 10 out the door "went out okay"; the rest had to make do, he said. He recalled how poor families "went to the basement of the church to get clothing and food."
When he was eight, Cormier and his family moved to Montreal where, at the age of 12 or 13, he first heard of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and participated in its charitable work.
He drifted away in his later teens, but when he moved to Ottawa in 2000, a friend asked if he wanted to join the Knights of Columbus. Cormier answered he would prefer to join the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He has been active ever since.
He started out doing what those in the Ottawa area do – volunteering to be on call for two weeks at a time, available to help any family in need. If a family calls, the SSVP will provide non-perishable food items and purchase fresh meat and produce that members – always in pairs – will deliver on a confidential basis.
The personal visits to people's homes are a trademark of the society, Cormier said. Visiting someone's home gives an entirely different picture than one would get "if you are sitting in an office with a form to fill out, ticking off the numbers."
Some people just need someone with whom to talk, he said. "That's one of the services you can do by home visits."
As Cormier prepares to take the helm this summer of the SSVP, which has more than 8,300 volunteers across Canada serving some 450,000 people in poverty each year, he hopes to encourage more of the society's projects in schools so a new generation of young people will catch the call to service.
The SSVP also has a chance to increase its exposure and renew its inspiration through the charism of its founder, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, during the celebration this year of the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Cormier is steeping himself in Ozanam's life, working through reading a thick volume of his letters, written in old French. In a training session in Paris, he was able to visit the churches where St. Vincent de Paul and Ozanam were buried as well as the place where the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul served the poor.
Ozanam, a doctor's son from a devout Catholic family, found himself in Paris after the French Revolution, when social forces were trying to push Catholics out of running schools and out of the public square. He became convinced the Christian faith offered the best solutions to the problems he saw.
Cormier sees parallels to today's world.
In travels to Haiti, Bolivia and Madagascar, he has seen firsthand the desperate plight of so many poor, including seeing people scavenging for food in garbage dumps that in some countries might only have attracted dogs.
"Even in Canada you see situations that are totally unacceptable in a country like ours," he said.
The SSVP is committed to systemic change, he said, oriented to give people the tools to rise out of poverty and stay out.
In Canada, the poor today are very different from 20 years ago, Cormier noted. "We need to change and adapt to be able to help them."
Sometimes, volunteers will drive up to a beautiful house with two new cars in the driveway. Inside, they will discover both parents have lost their jobs and they cannot make their payments or buy food, he said.
Volunteers also see more single-parent families struggling to meet their expenses. As well, Cormier is concerned about many old people too proud to ask for help.