What would you do if you won the lottery? Buy a new house, a sports car, or travel the world perhaps? But how many of us would use our winnings to set up a charity? That is exactly what Rachel Lapierre, a former Miss Quebec, did back in 2013.
The Canadian always loved volunteering, and after running her own modeling agency and working as a nurse, she was looking for a way to follow her idol, Mother Theresa, and dedicate her life to charity.
Then fate came knocking when she won a lifetime salary of C$1,000 (£605) a week in the Quebecois lottery “Gagnant à vie”, or “winner for life”.
“At first I couldn’t believe it, but I didn’t celebrate or shout it from the rooftop because I had made a promise to the universe and I was determined to keep it. I wanted to do something I loved for the rest of my life. I wanted to help others,” she says.
It took Ms. Lapierre only two months to quit her nursing job and launch her own charity, Le Book Humanitaire.
Her non-profit organisation, which is located in Saint-Jerome, about 60km north-west of Montreal, uses social media to connect those in need with people who can help.
On its Facebook page, which has 22,000 followers, those who are struggling can let the community know about their plight. At the same time, members of the public can advertise services or goods they want to donate.
“Let’s say that you have clothes to give away. We will put you in contact with a family that needs those clothes and will allow you to go give them yourself,” Ms. Lapierre explains. “It’s not only about material things. You might end up driving a cancer patient to a doctor’s appointment.”
It’s a far cry from Ms. Lapierre’s former career in the more glamorous, and some might argue consumerist, the world of modeling.
In the early 1980s, she joined a local modeling school where she was encouraged to enter the Miss Quebec beauty pageant. To her surprise, the then-21-year-old won the contest.
“I thought modeling was for tall blondes with blue eyes and I was short and brunette… But I am so glad I entered, it was a great experience.”
The following year she toured Canada as Miss Quebec and even got to meet Rene Levesque, the then-premier of Quebec.
It inspired her to set up her own modeling school in 1984, to teach young women how to build careers in the industry. It had about 10 staff.
“Running my own business taught me about accounting and how to manage employees,” Ms. Lapierre says.
She closed the business in the late 1980s to focus on bringing up her four children but also dedicated herself to voluntary work – making numerous trips with humanitarian organisations to places like India and Haiti.
It was this passion that led her to set up Le Book Humanitaire four years ago.
This year, the charity has made 15,000 “direct actions” in Quebec, ranging from furnishing an apartment for a family of Syrian refugees, to finding a home for a homeless mother who had just given birth.
She has also funded the organisation – which has 10 full-time volunteers and its own board – entirely by herself, investing $70,000 to date.
“This weekly C$1,000 I get from the lottery allows me to not go to work anymore and finance my organisation,” she says. “I pay for things such as our office rent and other administrative costs.”
There are limits to Ms. Lapierre’s budget, though. After she was interviewed by a popular Quebecois television station earlier this year, Le Book Humanitaire saw a huge increase in its Facebook followers, from around 4,000 to more than 20,000.
It led to an influx of requests for help, as well as donations, and the charity has struggled to keep up.
It needs to open several new facilities to store donated items, but Ms. Lapierre can’t afford to do this alone.
“We are counting on municipalities to lend us offices and make donations,” she says. “But there are always ways to make things work.”
Jean-Pierre Tchang, the founder of IRIS Mundial, a non-profit group that works to improve visual health in developing countries, says that building a successful charity is not easy.
“The main difficulty is money and getting funding,” says Mr. Tchang, who worked with Ms. Lapierre earlier in her volunteering career. “You also have to know your limits. You can start feeling overwhelmed by all the work and forget oneself… I am sure Rachel’s nights must be very short.”
Despite the challenges, Ms. Lapierre shows no sign of slowing down. She is also taking a workshop class on managing non-profit organisations to get better at what she does.
She continues to get joy from her work, which, she says “is nothing like running a regular business” and instead “feeds her soul”.
“Volunteering work represents billions of unrecorded dollars across the world. Without it, the world would not function.”
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