Les petits frères des Pauvres is a nonprofit international organization established in France in 1946 that provides emotional support for the elderly. For the past 10 years, this organization has given BYU students the opportunity to participate in internships in Paris, Marseille, Toulon and Lille working with isolated elderly men and women.
PROVO, Utah (June 11, 2015)–France is not just the Eiffel Tower, fine pastries, exquisite art museums or “La Vie en rose.” The country’s vibrant energy thrives on millions of souls, some hopeful with the vitality of youth, others solitary and withered by the storms of life. What is France beyond its charming landscapes and enchanting chateaux? It is a people defined by hardship, happiness and countless moments of meaningful existence.
When BYU interns with les petits frères des Pauvres go to France, they see beyond the old woman sitting on the bench at the park or the weary old man sipping his coffee in a café. They see lonely hearts inside of these individuals, good hearts, hearts steeped in rich history and shaking with life. In the isolated elderly of France, they see their friends.
A Meaningful Partnership
Ten years ago, French professor Yvon Le Bras was looking for valuable student internships when he discovered les petits frères des Pauvres – French for “the little brothers of the poor” – a humanitarian organization focused on relieving the elderly from isolation. Established in France in 1946, the organization has expanded to include a global network of chapters throughout Western Europe, Canada, Mexico and the United States. Le Bras sent two students to the internship for two months, who were not only delighted with their experience abroad, but also saw enormous improvement in their French language skills when they returned.
Since then, les petits frères des Pauvres has formed a meaningful partnership with BYU. Over the past ten years, more than one hundred students have participated in what is now one of BYU’s most popular internships.
“They offer me so many positions that I cannot fill them. They love BYU students,” said Le Bras, who now serves as the French internship program coordinator. “It’s more than a partnership. It’s like working as friends.”
The Other Side of the Coin
Each day, students meet with elderly men and women who are homebound or isolated from family and friends. During their visits, they interact with these individuals by listening to their stories, talking with them about their struggles or helping them recognize that they are loved, needed and not alone.
Internships give students greater opportunities to interact with the French people, providing them more opportunities to practice French. Internships like les petits frères des Pauvres also provide the valuable experience of true immersion in the culture, which is something that cannot be gained as fully on a study abroad.
“When the students come back from a study-abroad experience, all they remember are beautiful things,” said Le Bras. “But there is also the other side of the coin – the real world, rich and poor. Les petits frères des Pauvres gives students a chance to see the other side of the coin. Even though they see a lot of suffering, it is also enriching. They become aware of the human condition.”
A Student Changes His Perspective
French student instructor Nathan Jellen recalled an experience he had with an elderly woman during his internship in Lille that helped him to change his perspective.
Twice a week, Jellen would drive her to dancing, karaoke and crafting activities at the petits frères locale. Entire car rides were devoted to simply listening to her talk about her life, express her frustrations and work through personal problems.
On one occasion, however, this woman reached out to Jellen, an experience he says helped him feel like less of an outsider in a country hundreds of miles from his own home.
“Here she was, not even in a stable situation, and she was giving me advice about life,” said Jellen. “I started to realize that the advice that she was giving was about what she herself had experienced, and after that we became friends. Out of helping her and driving her around, I felt like I truly got to know her.”
Jellen loved his internship so much that he returned and did a second internship the following year. “There are a handful of us that are addicts,” Jellen said. “You just feel so good when you’re there, and it’s a great way to experience France.”
Going Forth to Serve
French student instructor and internship facilitator Laura Wilde also experienced moments during her internship with les petits frères des Pauvres in Marseilles that taught her about the importance of valuable relationships.
She recalled a day she spent with Giselle, a nearly blind woman in her 70s who could out-walk her in the streets of Marseille.
Wilde said that every week they would go on walks to churches to say prayers and light candles together. On one particular occasion, she remembers going on a more extended walk to Notre-Dame de la Garde, an iconic cathedral that watches over the port town of Marseille.
“This elderly woman took the time to make us sandwiches. No matter what was going on in her life, other people were her priority,” Wilde recalled.
“Later outside the cathedral, we were eating and I asked her if we could pray,” she continued. “I prayed in French, and afterward she gave me a kiss. It was such a tender moment where I felt like we shared in something that was really personal. I would say that was the highlight of my internship.”
Wilde believes that les petits frères des Pauvres provides more than just academic or vocational experiences. “Although it is really important that students realize that this is a chance for them to improve their French, I think I would emphasize the service aspect as well,” she explained. “BYU’s motto is ‘enter to learn, go forth to serve.’ I feel like this internship really embodies that. You’re going in to learn and to serve at the same time.”
The Transformative Power of Friendship
Noah Veloz, BYU alumni and former intern with les petits frères des Pauvres, described the profound transformation of a man he met in Lille named Jean-Louis.
“From his wrists to shoulders he is covered with tattoos, but even they can’t hide that his skin is thin and brittle, draped gently over his protruding bones,” recounted Veloz. “He gives only positive bursts of energy, but his body betrays visibly that he has endured more than one wants to imagine.”
Three years before Jean-Louis became involved with les petits frères des Pauvres, Veloz explained that the man was completely unable to leave his room, suffering from involuntary muscle spasms and surviving on intravenous feedings. “At night he cried and by day he contemplated suicide. ‘Solitude,’ he said to me, ‘was beginning to get tiresome,’” remembered Veloz.
But when the organization reached out to him with weekly visits, lunches, and even a vacation, Jean-Louis began to transform, Veloz said: “His body regained its form and mobility. He began to eat and drink and most of all, smile.”
During his internship Veloz had many opportunities to visit and talk with Jean-Louis in his home and on a few occasions, take trips together on canal boats. One of Veloz’s greatest memories, however, was at a crémaillère, a housewarming party Jean-Louis threw with his friends from les petits frères des Pauvres.
“I looked at Jean-Louis. I looked at his fragile skin, his cane in the corner. I looked at the pain that had formed the ridges in the corners of his eyes that now sparkled,” Veloz recalled. “But in that moment, all I saw in that man was love and gratitude for a second chance.”
“As I left the party, this hardened fisherman leaned in to give me a hug and spoke into my ear with his low, grizzled voice, ‘Merci, mon ami.’”
—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English ’17)
Sylvia covers the French and Italian Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.
Photos courtesy of Nathan Jellen and Noah Veloz.