The spirit of giving is alive and well in Orléans and not just because of the community’s generous support of a variety of charitable organizations and institutions, but because of the efforts of one couple in particular.
We hesitate to even mention their names because they would prefer to remain anonymous, but they deserve to be recognized for the breadth of what they’ve managed to accomplish over the past 15-plus years.
In 2005, Richard Lussier and his close friend Don Stephenson started an informal “Secret Santa” program, giving two students at St. Matthew High School in Orléans each a $75 gift certificate to Place d’Orléans as a reward for their hard work and perseverance in the face of financial hardship.
They did the same thing for the next four years. Then, in 2010, Richard and his wife Linda launched the Help Our Students program to provide financial support to deserving students throughout the entire school year.
In the first year, they gave two students from St. Matthew High School and one student from Cairine Wilson Secondary School $100 each month, from September through June, for a total of $1,000, using their own money augmented by funds raised through family and friends.
Over the years the program has grown and grown to the point where they recently reached a total of a million dollars, benefiting more than 6,000 students in over 65 schools, including every high school, both French and English in Orléans.
The genesis of the program goes back to Lussier’s first year at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Montréal. He was 17 years old at the time, and chose to go to RMC St-Jean out of necessity. It was the only post-secondary education his family could afford.
“I was young and stupid and spent most of my time and money socializing,” explains Lussier. “Part way through my first year I decided I wanted to quit, mostly because I had run out of money. When I called my father to tell him, he said he would give me $100 if I stayed in school. A $100 was a lot of money in 1962, especially for my father who was a middle class factory worker.”
Lussier not only stayed in school, but he eventually graduated and went on to have a successful career in the military and then as the managing director of National Arts Centre for 20 years.
“I always remembered that day and it has been my goal to try to do the same for students in similar circumstances,” says Lussier.
The students, at least two at every school, are selected by the school’s guidance staff. They have to be in Grade 10, or later, and they have to be in financial hardship. Many can’t afford clothes, or even a regular meal. Once the students are selected, a bank account is opened in their name with the RBC which works with each student to get the necessary information to open each account.
During the initial few years of the program the recipients would right letters to Lussier telling him of the various ways they used the money. Most use the money to help pay for transportation and clothing. One recipient used the money to pay for a prom dress, telling Lussier it was the first time she felt like a normal student.
Here is an excerpt from one such letter...
“Your monthly $100 has helped me in many ways. Before I got your money, I was very unmotivated to go to school because I was always sad and hungry and just upset with the way my life was going for the past two years.
“Your money helped me put clean clothes on my body, helped me put the food on the table. And helped me get from place to place. Your money made it easier for me to come to school and actually get work done; before all the help I was stressed and insecure about never having anything. I was able to help my mom, friends and some family over time and I really wish there was a way I could repay you for all your help. I don’t know where I would be without you.”
The Help Our Students program is funded entirely though private sponsors and is run by a board of directors, many of whom are prominent leaders in the community including the former head of the Royal Canadian Mint. Most importantly, every penny goes to the recipients. Since the program is run on a volunteer basis there are no administration costs.
In 2017, they were given status as a charitable organization which allows donations to be tax deductible.
To learn more about the Help Our Students program or to make a donation visit https://helpourstudentsprogram.com.