The ‘For the Love of Seniors’ annual Valentine’s Day event, organised by the Bleecker and Wellesley Activity Network (BWAN), enjoyed its fourth annual Valentine’s celebration this February 14th. Walking through the doors of the Wellesley Community Centre on a sunny and crisp morning, we were met with a large crowd of seniors who were registering for the day ahead. A general buzz of chatter and laughter filled the air as people were directed through to a bright room filled with tables from a variety of service providers. Behind the tables, which lined the exterior of the room, were friendly faces from the organisations, ranging from the emergency services (Toronto Fire Services, Emergency Medical Services, and the Toronto Police Services) to a number of other senior-specific groups (The Community Corner, The Neighbourhood Group Vulnerable Seniors Program, and Hospice Toronto to name a few). Fifteen organisations in total informed more than 150 seniors about their programs and services. In an adjacent room, chairs were filled with seniors who were learning about fire safety. One senior explained how vital these talks are in ensuring the safety of seniors in this area, which has seen some horrific fires in recent years. Over the delicious lunch of fresh wraps from the Oak Park Deli, fruit and butter tarts, seniors were entertained by the marvellous dancing of Pushmitha and Jeethika from Lakshya Dance Academy at St. James Town. Other activities also included a trivia quiz which allowed seniors to work collaboratively in groups and an incredible operatic singing performance from Faith Gumahad.

Many of the seniors agreed that this day helps to bring people together as they are “giving up their time to be around each other and spend the day together”. Valentine’s Day has become increasingly commercialized and more narrowly focused on the love between romantic partners. As many of these seniors live alone, Valentine’s Day can serve as a reminder of their isolation, leaving them feeling overwhelmingly disconnected. However, on this special day, everyone was in high spirits. Pong, who has been living in temporary housing since the fire at 650 Parliament, believes that “Living without love means that there’s no life… Simple”. Pong is right. This simple message represents the importance of the ‘For the Love of Seniors’ event in creating a space for the positive interaction which lays the foundation for strong community building. Varlo, who has lived in the St James Town area for many years and had offered to help volunteer at this event, emphasised that this socialisation allows a community to grow into places “where people don’t feel afraid to say hello”. As a neighbourhood which has had to face numerous challenges over the years, this message is one which should resonate with the residents of St. James Town. It is clear that days such as the ‘For the Love of Seniors’ do much more than gather people in the same time and place, they commemorate the past, bring joy to the present and, most importantly, imagine a bright future vision for the St. James Town community.

BWAN is managed by the infamous Vickie Rennie. “Everyone knows Vickie” is not an understatement. Everyone passing Vicky says a cheery hello and how are you. Even throughout our conversation at her office in 200 Wellesley, the people who walked past her open door yelled their greetings from the corridor. Vickie founded BWAN thirty-one years ago after an eye opening account revealed how vulnerable isolated seniors were and how this had become a severe problem in St. James Town. Her efforts to create a safe environment and foster a sense of belonging, allowing a place and space for seniors to connect with one another, has grown over the years. What started as a quarterly high tea has developed into a multi-program agency which organises arts and crafts, days out, and events such as the ‘For the Love of Seniors’. Being a full-time caregiver for many years to her grandmother and mother, Vickie has been able to get a real insight into the challenges seniors face on a day-to-day basis. Vickie pays particular attention to details which allow seniors from all backgrounds to feel welcome. She ensures that posters for the ‘For the Love of Seniors’ event are written not only in English but also Tamil, Ethiopian, and Chinese. Although her humble nature confessed that “It is only four languages but it reaches the bigger parts of the population here”, real credit needs to be given to the effort that Vickie brings to each and every venture. When asked what keeps her motivated to give back to the community after so many years, Vickie said simply that “I do enjoy it”. Her love for helping others combined with a bit of friendly attitude, which allows her to stand her ground, has resulted in a legacy which should be remembered for the years to come.

So, thank you Vickie for putting your heart into this community. And thank you also to all of her incredible and dedicated volunteers who helped make the running of the ‘For the Love of Seniors’ so smooth.

Thanks also must be given to the organisations who took the time to give information to the seniors:

Sherbourne Health Centre (both the diabetes clinic and all information otherwise), Dixon Hall, Progress Place, The Corner, C.A.M.H, Emergency Medical Services, The Neighbourhood Group Vulnerable Seniors Program, Central Neighbourhood House, Alzheimer Toronto, Toronto Fire Services, A1 Dental, Toronto Police Services – 51 Division, Hospice Toronto, Society of Sharing, Toronto Intergenerational Partnerships

And a special thanks to the Pushmitha and Jeethika from Lakshya Dance Academy at St. James Town