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We found our extended family volunteering in France, says UK-US couple

The pair are helping out at their local Emmaüs branch and combine their hobbies with meaningful work

A British-American couple living in Burgundy have told how they found an ‘extended family’ volunteering for a homeless initiative Pic: Keith Stimpson and Beth Friedemann / supplied by interviewees

A British-American couple living in Burgundy have told how they found an ‘extended family’ volunteering for a homeless initiative as well as being able to indulge their hobbies.

Keith Stimpson and Beth Friedemann, who are retired from careers in PR and at the UN respectively, began to spend one morning a week volunteering with their local Emmaüs branch in 2019.

The organisation supports people working their way out of homelessness, providing them with a stable home, training and work. They are known as compagnons (companions), and often live together in an Emmaüs community, gaining new skills as they collect, restore and resell donated goods with the help of volunteers.

Initially founded in Paris by Catholic priest Abbé Pierre in 1949, it now has 425 organisations in 41 countries.

“We had been going to Emmaüs in Sasoge [near Dijon] for more than 10 years as shoppers – combing through the range of used bric-a-brac, electrics, tools, toys, furniture, clothes and books they sell,” the couple told The Connexion

“It is a thriving business and there are anywhere between 200 and 300 customers who drop in. Emmaüs at Sasoge is home to about 40 compagnons and is supported by a small team of full-time salaried employees, and a dozen volunteers like us.”

Beth became interested in volunteering with Emmaüs after a behind-the-scenes tour and lunch with the compagnons.

“It opened my eyes to the work they do,” she said.

“Since the economic crash in 2008, there has been a squeeze on less well-off people, and I feel it is important to make a contribution and help people who have met misfortune.”

Keith added: “Emmaüs puts a roof over their heads and food on the table. It also encourages people to reuse and recycle, rather than always looking for something new.” The organisation provides various opportunities for people to get involved, he said.

“For example, I am a keen gardener and have been able to use that. Beth has always had an eye for porcelain and glassware and that has been put to good use.”

Beth usually sorts through crockery, bric-a-brac and artwork coming into the shop from house clearances, and advises on pricing and display.

Sometimes the team will make a particularly interesting find, such as a collection of marionettes – complete with a script and puppet theatre – dating back to 1939.

Keith, meanwhile, supports the conversion of a large on-site pasture into fruit and vegetable plots, helping to place compost bins and supply plants.

In addition, the couple are keen beekeepers and manage a small bee-yard at the Emmaüs centre which produces 30-40kg of honey for the compagnons’ breakfasts throughout the year.

Sasoge’s Emmaüs volunteers also help to organise summer and Christmas fundraising events, including pop-up jazz cafes – with music from Keith’s trio – and cake sales. 

“We find volunteering surprisingly enriching and feel it is time spent meaningfully. We are giving something back to the community.

“It makes us acknowledge how full and fulfilled our own lives have been when faced with those whose lives have been subject to misfortune.”

Over the years they have come to be regarded as part of the Emmaüs extended family, making friends with the other volunteers and collaborating with organisations such as Restos du Cœur.

The couple say that anyone with basic French and time on their hands, and who is open to meeting new people, can make a positive impact at their own local Emmaüs. 

Find out more at emmaus-international.org.

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