On the morning of Oct. 31, May Jarvie witnessed the blaze that destroyed The Children’s Storefront.
It was more than 30 years ago when she first brought her son, Max, to the beloved family drop-in centre at 1079 Bathurst St.
Here, at the free open-concept playspace, all children were welcome to read a book while snuggling among the pillows, or to play with the toy trucks and plastic blocks scattered throughout the brightly painted room.
“They just felt so comfortable there,” said Jarvie, who runs a bed and breakfast on Wells Street, around the corner from the centre.
At 8 a.m. on Halloween morning all those memories went up in smoke as she watched fire gut the building.
“I could see the upper storey with the windows still in place, but there was no ceiling. It had all gone,” Jarvie said. “You just looked through the windows, and you saw the sky.”
The fire is believed to have started in an apartment above the centre. Due to extensive structural damage, the building was demolished on Nov. 2. According to executive director Roona Maloney, it will take about $100,000 to establish a new location.
Jarvie’s is one among a chorus of parents’ voices, all expressing sadness over the loss of this community space.
Linda Read, long-time visitor to the Storefront and member of its board of directors, once brought her sons to the centre and recently had begun to take her three-year-old grandson, Oscar.
“It was such a pleasure to come back to the Storefront as a grandmother,” Read said. “It’s (Oscar’s) community.”
Read says The Children’s Storefront was unique among parent drop-in centres because it had no strict agenda.
There were ground rules, of course: no screaming, no running and always showing respect for others. But they kept the parenting guides and breastfeeding classes out of it. The atmosphere was more like a supportive, communal living room.
On Nov. 4, the centre was given the use of Dufferin Grove Park’s rinkhouse for the day to allow parents and children to gather for the first time since the fire.
“Most of the kids were terribly sad,” Read said. “One kid cried and he said ‘Roona broken? Michelle broken?’ He wanted to know about the people he loved.
“For them to be able to come back together, see each other and be in the same environment is really important.”
As for a new, permanent location, Maloney thinks it’s important to reestablish the easy-going atmosphere that appealed to so many parents and caregivers in Toronto.
“The scope of our program means you can come at any time of day, you are always welcome,” she said.
“It’s like being in your own home, only a little bit better because we have lots more toys, lots of people who come and it’s neutral territory, so the kids all get a chance to learn how to be with each other.”
Community members have gathered online through a Facebook group called “The Children’s Storefront Needs a New Home,” which already includes more than 400 members. Multiple fundraising efforts for a new location are underway, including a charitable donation account set up through TD Canada Trust (transit#13602, account #05425206664).
Annetta Battey-Pratt, another regular at the Children’s Storefront, has begun organizing a fundraising event at The Tranzac (292 Brunswick Ave.) on Nov. 24. Activities have not yet been confirmed, but she is looking for clowns or magicians to entertain the kids during the day.
On Nov. 6, the centre will hold a public meeting at the St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club (843 Palmerston Avenue) to discuss further fundraising ideas and a potential temporary location.