Riding with Rudolph
For the last thirty years, in this region of the Townships, volunteers wearing bright red tunics, and sometimes big red noses, have been picking up holiday revelers at parties and in bars and bringing them (and their cars) home safely. Hundreds of Nez Rouge volunteers, headquartered in Sherbrooke,
Coaticook and Magog, have been covering a big territory, usually in the wee hours of the morning, probably much bigger than people realize.
“People in Stanstead, Ayer’s Cliff or North Hatley can call us. Last weekend, one of our teams was gone for five hours on a call. Even people who haven’t been drinking but are just too tired to drive can call us. If someone calls the Sherbrooke Nez Rouge, they’ll find the closest team to go and pick them up,” said Diane Hebert, a ten year volunteer with the Coaticook Operation Nez Rouge in an interview at their temporary headquarters in the Coaticook Soccer Chalet.
“Each Nez Rouge team has three people: two people to go with the client and their car while a third person drives the pick-up car. That way the person’s car is at their home the next day,” explained Ms. Hebert. The intrepid Nez Rouge volunteers drive all over the countryside as well as in cities and towns to get people safely home. “Each team has a special radio with them to communicate with headquarters in case they need help to find a street or in case of an accident,” said Ms. Hebert as she showed me a dozen radios sitting on a table, waiting for Friday night’s fun to begin. “Sometimes we even have teenagers manning the radios at headquarters. They are ‘la releve’ of tomorrow.”
There are about sixty or seventy volunteers with Coaticook’s Nez Rouge club, some as young as eighteen and others in their seventies. Asked how she got involved, Ms. Hebert said: “My parents were both Nez Rouge volunteers for a few years and, one night during the holidays, I had nothing to do so I decided to volunteer. Just last weekend, a group of friends called and said they had nothing to do that night so had thought about volun- teering. We said: Come on down!”
Coaticook’s Operation Nez Rouge runs every Friday and Saturday night, beginning with the last weekend of November, up to and including December 31st, when the calls for lifts reach their peak, usually about fifty to sixty in the space of a few hours. “Sometimes we have a quiet night and sometimes the telephone doesn’t stop ringing. We’re busiest when the bars close, between 2:00 and 3:00 am. It’s like a sprint in the final hours and everyone drinks a lot of coffee, but it’s fun. When it’s not busy, we play cards or games. We often have a free lunch for the volunteers, provided by a local restaurant,” said Ms. Hebert.
Some local Coaticook organizations have made it a tradition to volunteer with Nez Rouge. “The parents and animators of the Scouts always come and work in teams the first night that we run, and the board of directors of Coaticook’s soccer club will come, with friends, to do it on December 14th. The Nez Rouge has always been a well-supported cause around here.”
Leo Goupil, a volunteer driver in his sixties, has been supporting the cause for eighteen years. “I’d like to do it for twenty years and, if my health continues, even longer. My girlfriend let’s me leave to come here at 10:00 pm, after she goes to bed,” he joked. “I do it because I might have saved lives up until now. I’ve driven my son and, recently, my eighteen year-old grandson! Just last weekend I drove 189 kilometres for Nez Rouge,” said Mr. Goupil who uses his Chrysler 300 as the volunteer pick-up car, following his two team members to the home of the clients, then bringing them back to headquarters or to the next call. “I have heated seats so they usually fight to see who sits in front.”
Mr. Goupil continued: “Today, most people appreciate what we do for them; years ago, people we picked up were sometimes aggressive. But, even today, some think we put the donations into our pockets.” Volunteers who use their own cars are actually paid a mere fifteen cents a kilometer, barely enough to pay for the gas.
Last Friday, the day of the interview, Ms. Hebert was expecting to have a
busy night. “It’s the Christmas party for Couillard Construction tonight so we’ll have a lot of volunteers ready, eight or nine teams. It will be the same for the Neidner party, coming up soon. Those companies are big sponsors of the Coaticook Nez
Rouge; their workers really need to keep their licenses,” Ms. Hebert said.
Nez Rouge operations are always looking for volunteers. The training takes only five minutes since newcomers are always placed on teams with experienced volunteers. They need people with or without driving permits since some of the volunteers just go along for the ride. Volunteers must be at least eighteen, or twenty-one if they are to drive the cars of callers, and they must undergo a brief police check.
If you’d like to use the services of Nez Rouge, the numbers to call are 819 821-4646 or toll-free 1-866-DESJARDINS for the Sherbrooke area, 819 8499333 for the Coaticook area, and 819 847-2333 for the Magog area. The Magog and Coaticook Nez Rouge operations will run on December 20th, 21st, 27th, 28th and the 31st. On other nights people can call the Sherbrooke numbers to find a lift home. Although the service is free, people are encouraged to give donations and most do, usually what they would have paid to take a taxi. Receipts for these ‘donations’ are provided for tax purposes.
The Coaticook Nez Rouge by the numbers: Just last weekend alone, fifty-two volunteers, making up fifteen three-man teams, accompanied 83 drivers and their cars safely home. Last year, after the holiday season, the Coaticook Nez
Rouge club donated their profits, about $3000, to the Coaticook soccer club.
Nez Rouge volunteers Leo Goupil and Diane Hebert, seen here at the Coaticook Nez Rouge headquarters, hope they hear from YOU this holiday season!