Presenting: Gene Domagala – A Human Convenience Store of Charity and Community Involvement in Toronto’s Beach
Just up the street, across from Nevada’s Ristorante, the former Whitelock’s Grocery Store has morphed into today’s Whitlock Restaurant (which, by the way, features a delicious brunch), and is one of the few wooden corner buildings left in Toronto. With a growling stomach and all these wonderful restaurants around I persuaded Gene to go for lunch, and we headed into another institution in the Beach: Lick’s, a restaurant that features a variety of burgers, salads and one of my favourites: poutine (a popular sloppy yet yummy French-Canadian concoction of French fries, gravy and cheese curds).
Gene and I headed upstairs and sat down for a chat when he showed me his home-knitted sweater featuring “Centre 55”, a local community centre that serves the Beach / East York neighbourhood. Gene regularly helps with their Christmas activities which feature the “Christmas Hamper” where more than 900 needy families in the Beach receive a hamper full of goods including ham or turkey, milk, bread, pasta and toys for the children. Gene has volunteered for this organization for the last 25 years.
Beach shows off his sweater advertising Community Centre 55
He is also very active with the Toronto Star Santa Claus Fund, a Christmas initiative that involves volunteers delivering boxes full of Christmas gifts to needy families. He has been delivering Star Boxes for about 47 years now in the Parkdale area. Gene Domagala traces his commitment to charity back to his mother who used to cook for poor people in this west-end Toronto neighbourhood. Gene’s parents were Polish immigrants who settled in the Bathurst and Queen area, and even as a child Gene got exposed to children of all different backgrounds and nationalities. All the children played together in this poor neighbourhood. Gene continues this spirit of inclusion today with his anti-racism work.
His interest in history was stoked early when he played with a bunch of boys in Toronto’s historic Fort York. Gene attended a technical high school and by his own admission, Gene realized early that his future would not lie in the trades. His favourite person in high school was his social studies teacher who got him a subscription to TIME Magazine. He also was inspired by the history teacher and the librarian. Gene’s early interest in history has resulted in hundreds of articles on local history. In addition, Gene regularly provides historical walks in the Beach that have become so popular that they are often attended by dozens of people.
Historic views of Queen Street
After high school Gene worked in a variety of odd jobs, including a job at the CNE. Several years later he started working at the Boy’s Club, a non-profit organization operated by the Knights of Columbus in Little Italy, where he became the program director. His knack for organization and community work became evident early in life.
Gene explains that he was supposed to attend a program for social work at George Brown College but ended up taking a program in architecture instead and then worked for many years for a Toronto engineering firm until he was downsized in the early 1990s. Gene’s life hasn’t been easy, his two twin adult daughters suffer from Asperger’s syndrome, a neuro-biological developmental disorder, and over the years Gene has had to become an expert on mental health. He is also a board member of an organization called “Friends of the Shopping Bag Lady”, a drop-in centre for women at 416 Dundas Street. During the early part of the 1990s Gene spent some time in court to fight for custody of his grandchild and now looks after his granddaughter Siobhon. Since that time Gene has dedicated himself on a full-time basis to his family and to his extensive charitable and community work. Gene is not a wealthy man, which makes his commitment to others even more admirable.
Gene Domagala – an omni-present positive force in the Beach
Gene’s eyes light up when he tells me about his proudest moment: when he was invited to become a member of the Toronto Historical Board. He even had a chance to meet the Queen Mother during one of the organization’s functions. Gene has been actively involved in a variety of historical preservation projects, including salvaging the Leuty Lifeguard Station, probably the most well-known landmark in the Beach. The structure had been ravaged by time and by the early 1990s it was deemed to be structurally unsound. Gene was one of the concerned citizens who started talking with the city and initiated numerous fundraising events to start the restoration of the Leuty Lifesaving Station.Various special events, music nights, a volleyball tournament, and sales of t-shirts, buttons and mugs ended up raising tens of thousands of dollars. Of the total cost of about $95,000, about 40% came from the community while the City of Toronto contributed about 60%. Gene is always one of the people at the forefront of community developments and initiatives.
Gene’s other local involvements include the Spring Sprint, a fundraiser started 20 years ago by the Beaches Recreation Centre. He also is one of the volunteers at Slobberfest, a special event for dog lovers held once a year on a Saturday afternoon in June, that includes such humorous activities as pet/owner look-a-like contests, best pet/owner singing duo, best pet howls, best pet trick, and many other entertaining activities. I even bumped into Gene myself on New Years Eve when I went skating at the outdoor rink at Kew Gardens when Gene came by to announce free hot chocolate and marsh mallows for the New Years Eve Party at the skating rink. Gene undoubtedly is an omni-present and well-treasured pillar of this community.
Gene with Zoltzz (entrepreneur Harold Weisfeld)