By Rich Pollack
Arthur Remillard is a generous man.
At 87, Remillard cringes when he sees people on television, both in the U.S. and abroad, who don’t have enough to eat. It’s heartbreaking for him to see people living in poverty and struggling to get by.
And it brings back memories.
“I know what it’s like to feel poor,” he says.
A successful businessman who built an insurance company that, at one point, insured one of every three automobiles in Massachusetts, Remillard is now in a position to help people in need.
Through his philanthropy, he supports soup kitchens, hospitals and medical school programs in his hometown of Worcester, Mass. For the past 10 years, he has spread his generosity to organizations in South Florida, including 4KIDS of South Florida and Habitat for Humanity.
Perhaps his biggest impact in Florida, however, has been with Boca Helping Hands, where he all but single-handedly funded the organization’s $3 million home, a 15,000-square-foot facility that serves about 175 noontime meals to people in need. The building has a food pantry that distributes thousands of pounds of groceries every year.
Job training programs are offered there, too. Staff members are on hand to help connect people in need with other services.
“Arthur is my patron saint,” says Gary Peters, president of the board of Boca Helping Hands. “He’s the one responsible for us being in this building. It’s a facility that impacts thousands of people.”
Last month Remillard was honored with special recognition during Boca Helping Hands’ Celebration event.
“Arthur has always been encouraging and a strong supporter,” Peters said. “He’s been there every step of the way.”
Remillard says that when he first arrived in South Florida about 10 years ago he was looking for an organization to support.
He Googled food pantry and Boca Raton because he had donated to similar organizations up north. Boca Helping Hands popped up immediately.
Remillard went to meet with Peters and discovered that the organization was a lot smaller than those he typically supported.
At the time, Boca Helping Hands was little more than a small soup kitchen working out of the Friendship Baptist Church, serving about 36 meals a day. The facility occupied a mere 900 square feet.
“It wasn’t much of an operation,” Remillard said, adding that meals were served only four days a week.
Seeing a great need in the community, Remillard issued a challenge to Peters.
“I said ‘go find a building,’ ” he recalls.
It took four years and a lot of searching, but together Peters and Remillard found the perfect spot on Northwest First Court.
When the building opened in 2010, Boca Helping Hands served 80 meals a day and began serving six days a week. At one point during the height of the recession, the organization served 225 meals a day.
In addition to noontime meals and the food pantry service, Boca Helping Hands serves between 60 and 70 family meals one night a week.
For Remillard, philanthropy comes as the result of his success in business.
Growing up in Worcester, Remillard joined the Navy after high school. After his discharge, he went to Clark College in his hometown and graduated with a degree in accounting. He became a partner in five supermarkets and then went into the insurance business, opening his own agency.
In 1972 he started Commerce Insurance, becoming a major insurer in Massachusetts. He sold the firm in 2006 for $2.2 billion.
“I grew up saying I would do well, but I never thought I would do this well,” he says.
For Remillard, whose father was a janitor and whose family was too poor to think about giving to charity, philanthropy has become an important part of his life. It’s something he has shared with his five children and grandchildren.
It’s not unusual, Peters says, for members of Remillard’s family to come to Boca Helping Hands and volunteer when they’re in town.
That’s something that Remillard says makes him proud.
“I want people to think of me as a businessman who got involved in philanthropy and who passed the idea of philanthropy onto his family,” he said.