For several decades now, Gene Domagala and driends have been making Christmas a little more merry for those living in one of Toronot’s poorer neighbourhoods.
Domagala co-ordinates work in the Parkdale area of the city for the Toronto Star’s annual Christmas relief campaign, which includes the delivery of boxes containing food, clothing and toys to needy families. He began this work with the now-defunct Columbus Boys Club 35 years ago and, after the Club was effectively disbanded in 1977, continued on with the Star’s campaign.
“This is whart we call our Christmas spirit,” says Domagala, 55. He notes that Campaign Life Coalition president Jim Hughes and about 50 others are regular helpers in the relief effort.
The Columbus Boys Club was formed during the Depression years by a Knights of Columbus council in downtown Toronto as a way of getting boys off the streets and into a club where they could learn about faith and good behaviour.
“There were no parks or boys’ clubs to speak of, nothing for the kids to go to,” Domagala says about life before the Club was established. The Knights of Columbus council bought out an old piano factory and set up a facility which featured sports, woodworking, a camera club and Christmas parties, among other activities.
“You’ve got 25,.000 to 30.000 kids who came out of there,” days Domagala. “Some of them became priests, doctors, lawyers and engineers …Our creed was more or less based on belief in God and honesty.”
During the 1940s, the Club formed a partnership with the Star’s annual Christmas relief campaign by accepting responsibility for the delivery of gift boxes in the Parkdale region. It was a job Domagala took on when he joined the Club as a volunteer program director in 1960.
“That’s exactly what we’re doing right now, in fact,” he says about the work he does. “Even after 35 years, it gets to you. You don’t know the misery … Some people live in hovels.”
Although the Columbus Boys Club officially dies in 1977, former volunteers continue to meet in the form of a loose unit which gets together once or twice a year, mainly for social purposes.
Domagala says he and the others plan to continue their work for the foreseeable future. “I guess until the day we die,” he says.