For more than 20 years, the red-and-white signs depicting two children holding an adult's hand were a fixture in the windows of Toronto neighbourhoods.
Today, it's hard to find a single Block Parent sign on most streets, testifying to the changing nature of the city's communities.
The program in Toronto, with the exception of the former city of Scarborough, is in peril of being shut down if volunteers do not come forth very soon. "If we get the people, the program can rally. If not, it will die," said Marianne MacBride, chair of the Ontario Block Parent Program and vice-president of the Canada Block Parent Program.
Homes with the sign in the window signal that children who may be frightened, hurt or lost in Canada's largest urban centre can knock on the door and find refuge. In participating schools, a parent or a member of the parent advisory council chairs the program and organizes volunteers. Newsletters and other information about the program are sent home with students. Volunteers and police go into schools upon request to talk to children about the program.
But interest in the Toronto program began to decline after the city amalgamated with its five surrounding municipalities. Five of the existing Block Parent programs formed a single group, while organizers of the Scarborough program decided to remain independent. Their program is thriving.
The post-amalgamation program was unmanageable because it was too large, Ms. MacBride said.
"It was not a smart thing to do to merge," she said, and has rejected similar proposals to combine programs in other Ontario areas undergoing amalgamation. "We need to return to the programs the way they were before amalgamation."
The loss of local identity was a byproduct of the creation of one large city. Ms. MacBride said that people were no longer as interested in volunteering their time for a new city with which they did not identify.
"There is so much public apathy out there. It's really sad," she said.
The city's multicultural makeup is another factor in the program's decline, Ms. MacBride said. Block Parents is thriving elsewhere in Ontario and other provinces, but there is a large population in Toronto that did not grow up with the program and are unfamiliar with it. This means volunteers are needed all the more to talk to schoolchildren so they can relay the information to their parents, she said.
Carol Johnson, executive director of Crime Concern, which oversees the Toronto Block Parent Program and Neighbourhood Watch, added that there are not as many stay-at-home mothers as there were when the program started.
Attracting new volunteers may prove an impossible task.
The Toronto program has been trying to do just that for more than a year with almost no success. Only four people showed up at a public meeting last year, and three attended one in April.
Unah Grieve, who has been a key organizer of the program in her North Toronto neighbourhood for the past three years, said she hopes it survives.
"I would be very saddened if the program dissolves," said the mother of three.
The first Block Parent Program was started in London, Ont., in 1968, and by 1982 it had gone national. Today, there is a program in more than 770 Canadian communities.
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