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QPMA's Sophie Perreault goes the distance for members and the less fortunate

Sophie Perreault loves her job.

In fact, she loves serving as the executive director of the Quebec Produce Marketing Association so much that at times she said that she spend hours at it and has to remind herself to turn off her computer and do something else.

That "something else" often means volunteering in the community for organizations such as the United Nations Chidrens' Fund and for the Defi Sportif, one of the world's larger sporting events for disabled athletes that takes place in Montreal every April.

"I think that people in the produce industry work really hard and forget to take time for themselves and do something they really enjoy," Ms. Perreault said. "You need the right balance, and this is why I like to volunteer."

Ms. Perreault spent two years performing volunteer outreach for UNICEF in Montreal primary schools, where once a month she would lead activities and give talks to children about poverty, wars, refugees, diseases such as AIDS and the difficulties children in developing countries face - until the UNICEF Montreal office closed last year. Before the office closed, she served as its communications director, helping to organize and promote activities in honor of UNICEF's 60th anniversary and helping to raise $100,000 that was used to build a school for girls in the African nation of Burkina Faso.

For the past five years, Ms. Perreault has also volunteered at the Defi Sportif, which is now in its 23rd year and drew 2,800 athletes from 12 countries to compete in numerous events over the five days of this year's competition.

Ms. Perreault noted that it is one of the few events in the world where there are five levels of disabled individuals - physical, mental, auditory, visual and intellectual - that compete together. She looks after 14 athletes who serve as spokespeople for the 14 individual sporting events at the games such as badminton, basketball, cycling, fencing and track and field, going with them not only to their competitions but to media and special events as well so they can promote the sport.

"I was always doing sports and I wanted to volunteer, but I hate when you have organizations that have pity over different people, and the Defi Sportif really gives a positive image of handicapped people," she said. "These people are told every day that they are different, that they are not as good or intelligent, but at the Defi Sportif they are heroes. They are not handicapped people, they are athletes. I love doing this, I've learned so much from them from their courage, discipline, motivation and willingness to do better. For me it's a gift to be with them every year."

Ms. Perreault, 28, joined the QPMA as its communications director in 2003.

She had previously worked in the hotel, restaurant and catering industries while earning a bachelor's degree in public relations and a master's degree in international communications.

"I wanted to work for an association where I could have close ties with its members and where my input and ideas would have a direct impact," she said.

Among her many duties, Ms. Perreault worked on promoting the 5 to 10 A Day program where she said she noticed "that something was going on in Quebec and in Canada, that people where more aware of taking care of their health."

Ms. Perreault said that she saw an opportunity to develop a campaign targeted toward Quebecers' unique cultural characteristics. She brainstormed with the QPMA's partners, members and the board on what would resonate best with Quebecers, and the "I Love" campaign was born in 2004.

"It was a big hit because it talks about emotion, taste, pleasure and tells people it is fun to eat these products," she said.

Her hard work did not go unnoticed. In February 2005, the QPMA's board of directors chose to nominate Ms. Perreault to be the association's executive director, a title she officially assumed in June 2005.

Though she worked closely with the association's previous director and knew a lot about the issues affecting the industry, and Ms. Perreault said that she still has a lot to learn because the industry is very complex and is getting even more so. "My members are so busy working, that they cannot be aware of everything going on. I have to make sure that the association will inform them on any change that might affect their industry.

"In Quebec, it is like a little family and I am very lucky that everyone welcomed me and made it easy for me," she continued. "I'm always amazed to see how people can put aside their competition to make things happen through the association, which has been here for 60 years. My young age has permitted me to inject fresh ideas into the QPMA. On the other hand, most of my members and directors have many years of experience under their belts, therefore I have to utilize their knowledge to the benefit of the whole association. I was very lucky to meet people along the way who have helped me, like Stephen Whitney, Danny Dempster, Leo Arsenault and my board, who have taken time to explain to me over the year what happened and why we are there -- and that is really appreciated."

Ms. Perreault said that having a young executive director also has benefits for the QPMA.

"It is a good image for the industry to have someone young and dynamic," she said. "I think that this was good for the QPMA, and it is a good example that young people can manage big things."