Céline Vivier, the president of Operation Thermos, took some time from her very busy schedule to speak to Together Magazine.
As the cold winter months settle in, many of us will think about the homeless people we sometimes come across on the street and how many people – even those with jobs – are struggling to get by with the higher cost of living. We wanted to highlight one organisation that is making a difference in Brussels and that’s how we came across Opération Thermos.
What does Opération Thermos do?
Opération Thermos was established in 1987, initially it was aimed at helping homeless people, offering them some hot coffee and sandwiches. Over the years it has evolved to have a much larger scope, addressing poverty and food poverty in general. Now, we can offer a complete hot meal: soup, a hot dish, coffee or hot chocolate and dessert. We do this every evening during winter, we also have a service throughout the year. We try to use as much fresh food and vegetables as possible, we want to include healthy food to those who come to us.
Since this summer we have been working with Frigo Solidaire to provide a place where people in a precarious situation can come and help themselves to food. It’s situated at Hospice Pacheco, rue du Canal 12. It is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.
“We are also helping in the fight against food waste”
We are also helping in the fight against food waste, we can recuperate unsold produce from the morning market, bakeries and restaurants. Everybody is welcome at our distribution from 8:00 p.m. at Botanique metro station. We don’t ask questions, we just offer people food. We keep it simple.
On your website it says that you also offer ‘smiles, contacts and support’? Can you say something about your approach?
Besides food, we are also there to talk with the beneficiaries – if they feel like it – and to answer their questions. Our many volunteers are present to welcome them warmly, offer a smile and eye contact – something which is often missing on the streets. We also from time to time, organise some more fun activities and some small gestures on Saint Nicolas and Christmas Day. Nothing big, but a gesture.
How has Operation Thermos developed over the years?
As I’ve said, we’ve come a long way from what we offered when Opération Thermos first started in 1987. We do think about what we offer and try to make sure that it’s both filling and nourishing – and as I said, delivered with warmth.
In February we opened a new kitchen in Molenbeek. It’s more comfortable and provides more support to the people who come to us and can offer assistance from other agencies. It’s also much more convenient for our distribution. Teams can come and cook there and it’s a place where we’re able to organise meetings.
Who are the main beneficiaries?
It used to be mostly homeless people. Since Covid, in particular, we have more of the ‘new poor’ or people who have work. Increasingly it is people who have a job but who are struggling to afford food for themselves or for their family and children. There are more women and young people in their 30s to 40s than 10 years ago. Some migrants or people without papers to legally reside in Belgium come too these days, this is increasingly the case.
We can say that there is a crisis in the services that are there to support migrants. They have become a majority and it has become a problem because currently we only have the capacity to service 200 people per evening. That’s already a lot for us, a lot to ask volunteers to do. It is the highest we’ve had in the entire lifetime of our organisation.
Do you think there will be more demand this year?
We had expected an increase of the number of beneficiaries, but not to this extent. It means that costs also increase and logistics get more complicated. We need more food, packaging and transportation. All of these things cost more than before and we need more volunteers to meet these expectations, but we also need security if we don’t have enough for those who come for food.
“We had expected an increase of the number of beneficiaries, but not to this extent.”
On a personal note, how did you become involved in this project?
I got involved more than 12 years ago. I wanted to help those who found themselves in this very precarious situation – to do something concrete that would make a difference and Opération Thermos needed volunteers.
I started in the field, then quickly became secretary, then vice-president (external affairs) and president during Covid.
It has certainly been a challenge, but then so are most things that are worth doing. Since I started we have created a new administrative structure which has helped us make big steps in the professionalisation of our activities and improving organisation. People who donate to charities like ours want to know that their money is put to good use and that it isn’t wasted. We make sure that those resources get to the frontline.
How can people help?
We always need volunteers, especially for the station and teams willing to help for a night by cooking the meal they’ve decided and distributing it. Sometimes schools, groups of friends, scouts and companies have rolled up their sleeves and got involved.
Donations are very welcome as we don’t have subsidies or grants from the state. Food or other donations too. We sell goodies on the website: truffles, honey and soon our very own beer! Starting from December there will be various activities to mark our 35th anniversary (karaoke, theatre, gala dinner in 2024). And many other possibilities are under discussion.
Thank you, Céline!
If you want to volunteer or donate, please go to Opération Thermos’s website: