Presenting: Gene Domagala – A Human Convenience Store of Charity and Community Involvement in Toronto’s Beach

One of the lessons travel has taught me is to not only get to know the beauty of the foreign places, but to appreciate the uniqueness of home. The more I travel, the more I have fallen in love with my chosen home town, Toronto, a city that offers a myriad of possibilities for travelers and residents alike.

In this spirit I have embarked on a path towards a series of articles and photo exhibitions to explore and celebrate my chosen home town. A batch of recent visitors from Europe has confirmed to me that Toronto is a great city, as each one of my visitors have ended up falling in love with this city, intending to come back and to get to know the Big Smoke better.

One of my visitors’ and my own personal favourites is Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood, or, as most local residents call it “The Beach”. It is a beautiful neighbourhood, located – you guessed it – right on the shores of Lake Ontario, and it has the feel of an ocean-front resort community combined with the ambience of a small town from yesteryear, with its dozens of individually owned stores, galleries and restaurants.

The Beach – an urban oasis in Toronto

But what makes any neighbourhood special is not just its physical characteristics, its buildings and its architecture – it’s the people that make the difference. Every community has its key personalities, its human pillars, and my mission has been to search out the individuals that stand out through their commitment to the community. Often these are the unsung heroes who dedicate so much of their personal time to help others while shunning the limelight.

My quest for community heroes began with a meeting with local representatives and experts on the Beaches, which included Deborah Etsten from the Beach Business Improvement Association, and Michael Prue, the Provincial Member of Parliament representing the Beaches/East York neighbourhoods. Both of these experts pointed to Gene Domagala as one of the key people in the Beach community.

Gene Domagala in front of the Beaches Library

On one of the first really wintery days in Toronto, just a few days before New Years, I met Gene at a real local landmark: the Toronto Beaches Library. We met near the checkout counter where Gene introduced me to Barbara Weissman, the head librarian, who would later help me with some of my research by compiling relevant materials about the Beach.

Gene’s charitable spirit immediately became obvious as we stepped out of the library when he promised to get a cup of coffee for a local homeless man in a wheelchair who had set himself up just outside the library. Gene regularly helps out in local drop-in centres who open their doors to the homeless on different days of the week.

The treasured Kew Gardens bandstand

After dropping off the coffee Gene introduced me to one of Toronto’s most beloved outdoor spaces: Kew Gardens, originally created by one of the first settlers in this area. Joseph Williams and his wife Jane bought a four acre property in 1853 to turn it into farmland. Joseph, originally from London, England, always had fond memories of Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens in London, and in this spirit he named his property “Kew Farms”. In 1879 he opened a twenty acre pleasure ground, suitable for camping and picknicking which he named “The Canadian Kew Gardens”. Gene explained that as a teetotaler, Joseph Williams would serve meals and refreshments, but definitely no alcoholic beverages.

A tribute to Alex Christie

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