Presenting – Bob Murdoch from Centre 55 Has My Vote for an Honorary Doctorate of Community Service

No neighbourhood portrait about Toronto’s Beach could be complete without one of the key pillars of the community: Since he started at Centre 55 (a local community centre in the Beach) in 1980 Bob Murdoch has been at the heart of making this community work. He has started numerous creative and innovative initiatives to improve the lives of a wide range of people in the Beach community. Bob is a down-to-earth, straight-forward guy who does not mind rolling up his sleeves and working hard. He does not crave the spotlight, but I thought it was definitely time to put the limelight on him.

Bob is deeply rooted in the Beach Community. He grew up in this neighbourhood and has always had a deep attachment to the area. Before attending a recreation program at Centennial College he went to a local high school and local churches.
Following college and university, and along with some additional courses in human resources management, Bob decided to ply his trade at the YMCA.

Bob Murdoch gathered his original work experience at the YMCA where he was a program director. He informed me about the “Y-Experience” which is focused primarily in leadership experiences in sports and fitness programs and provides many great professional learning opportunities for candidates with high potential.

One of the special events that Bob used to run was called the “Great Lakes Race”, which involved six people racing across Lake Ontario in a 26″ north canoe (similar to a voyageur canoe). The 30 mile race would start in Niagara-on-the-Lake (on the Ontario side) or Youngstown (in New York State) and end in Toronto, during rain, hail, or high winds. Bob adds that the world record for north canoe racing was set in Toronto and won by a company called Techcan from Hamilton. Racers would have to train for three months to get ready for this challenging competition.

At the YMCA, Bob ran squash tournaments, sports programs and various arts and crafts programs; he also managed a “vertical village”, sports facilities run by the YMCA inside a private condominium building where Bob was in charge of the sports and fitness program. This varied employment background helped him make his next career move in 1980 to a community centre in the neighbourhood where he had grown up, Centre 55. Founded in 1975, Centre 55 originally offered programs such as a nursery school, a day camp, evening user groups, volleyball and yoga. Bob describes it as a small facility with a good infrastructure.

Over the past 25 years Centre 55 has become a comprehensive social service provider in the Beach. Its most well-known program is called “Share-a-Christmas” which involves a hamper or basket full of goods that is delivered to needy families in the centre’s catchment area. This assortment of goods includes one medium to large frozen turkey, 6 litres of 2% milk, bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, desserts, non-perishable foods and an age-gender appropriate toy for each child.

The average value of this basket is $300, and families as well as corporations are able to adopt a family. The Beach is generally perceived as a wealthy neighbourhood, but according to Bob’s hamper delivery map, there are many streets in the Beach, even in the wealthy areas close to the lakefront, where there are families receiving Christmas donations. Low-rise rental apartment buildings with low income families are often located right next to million dollar homes. The total number of families who benefited from the Adopt-a-Family program was 973 this year.

The official mascot of the Share-a-Christmas event is an oversized reindeer called “Hamper”, which nicely coincides with the Christmas basket idea. Bob told me a funny story about how the name “Hamper” came into being. In the old days of the orange and black computer screens, one of Bob’s co-workers had created a vertical listing of Santa’s Reindeers and the last word on the list was “Hamper”. Along with “Dasher”, “Dancer” or “Prancer”, “Hamper” sounded like a pretty good name for an additional reindeer.

Bob thought this was brilliant and commended his coworker for coming up with this creative idea of naming a new addition to Santa’s reindeers. His colleague looked perplexed and said he had just added the name of the file at the bottom of the listing, there was in fact no new addition to the reindeers. A much less dramatic story, but the name “Hamper” stuck and the cartoon reindeer has become the poster child of Christmas charity in the Beach.

A 9 foot mascot was built a couple of years later, whose image incidentally adorns the building’s east façade, and Centre 55’s Share-A-Christmas program now consists of about 700 individual and corporate contacts encompassing a total network of about 2500 active volunteers.

Bob Murdoch is a strong supporter of volunteer recognition, and he has developed an entire program to honour the people who make his programs work. He has created “Hamper’s University” which bestows undergraduate, masters and doctoral “degrees in Christmas” on the volunteers, and his award system is based on the volunteer’s contribution to the community.

Bob Murdoch believes in the magic of Christmas, which is a symbol of universal kindness, unconditional peace and harmony. The Share-A-Christmas program itself is non-denominational, and volunteers and beneficiaries of the program come from all backgrounds and religions.

Hamper’s Annual Christmas Convocation honours those who have made a significant and sustained effort in the local community. This year the youngest graduate ever, an 11 year old girl, was honoured with a Doctorate in Christmas. Children who participate in the Share-A-Christmas program sort or pack gifts, they fundraise, sing carols or give up their own Christmas gifts for other more needy people in the community.

Bob adds that these honorary degrees have a tremendously positive effect on the recipients, and he guarantees that the volunteers that have been honoured with these “degrees” will find a job when they start looking for work. Employers are always looking for good corporate citizens, and volunteering adds an impressive dimension to any resume. The Adopt-A-Family program offers a great deal of synergy between the volunteers, the community, and the businesses. Centre 55’s Share-A-Christmas program ends every year with deliveries of gifts on the 22nd of December, and the very next day a new round of fundraising and volunteering is kicked off for the next year.

A variety of other programs are run at Centre 55. From a chapter of Al-Anon, to free income tax clinics, free flue shots and Meals on Wheels, Centre 55 is an all-round social services agency. The Pegasus Community Program for Adults with Special Needs runs one of its programs here, the Beach Photo Club and the Beaches Speeches Club (a chapter of Toastmasters), and the Professional Academy of Drama and Music all have their home here.

Different groups within the entire wider community benefit from Centre 55’s services. Apart from funding for the operational costs, Centre 55 does not receive any funds from the city for its services. All the money required for the various programs has to be generated from fundraising efforts. Bob explained that this type of social service delivery is a unique Toronto-based model.

There are 10 community centres in the former City of Toronto grouped together in an umbrella organization called the “Association of Community Centres” whose mandate it is to provide a diverse range of services to the community. These facilities differ from regular recreational centres which, as their name says, have a specifically recreational purpose. Bob explained that the other former cities that today make up Metropolitan Toronto (the suburbs of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough) do not have these types of community centres. Instead they have recreational multiplexes that encompass swimming pools, hockey rinks, gyms and other facilities in one location, while social services are mostly delivered by non-profit organizations like the United Way.

This community-centre-based model of social service delivery is truly unique to Toronto, and according to Bob’s description, the entire approach is fully driven by the community. The needs for the social services are defined by the neighbourhood, and the residents get together to try to find solutions how to address these needs. This grass-roots approach of communities helping themselves is a very unique approach, and it is quite time-consuming and complex to get such a community organization off the ground. That is why there are only 10 of these types of community centres in Toronto. Bob added that there are 13 designated communities in Toronto that need help, and not all of them have access to the multi-service community centres.

Fundraising is a key skill for this organization and Bob is a gifted and creative fundraiser. One of the latest fundraising efforts is called “Slobberfest”, a humorous take on an interesting, consumer-based idea sure to succeed in the pet-friendly Beach neighbourhood. This festival was held for the first time last year and presented a variety of pet contests, including owner-pet look-alike contests and a wide variety of pet tricks. Vendors at the event had to pay a fee which became part of the fundraising campaign for Centre 55.

Bob is already thinking of a new event: “Pipestock” (in analogy of Woodstock) will be a bagpipe festival which will involve competitive piping and a gathering of tartans and clans. A new project, the Village of East Toronto Christmas Parade, was held for the first time this past Christmas. Participants included local marching bands, politicians, residents and businesses, and the effort was intended to support the local community and economic development. Bob was expecting about 500 spectators to show up. Once the police count of the crowd was in, the number was more in the 5000 to 6000 range, something that exceeded everybody’s expectations.

One important annual event run since 2000 by Centre 55 is the Annual Citizen of the Year Award. This joint initiative between the Beaches Lions Club, the Beach Metro Community News and Centre 55 honours important volunteers in the community who have dedicated their effort over many years. Gene Domagala was the first such recipient and Bob refers to him as a “utility man” because Gene is present throughout the whole community and offers his help wherever he is needed. People such as Glenn Cochrane, Arie Nerman and Marie Perrotta have also been honoured for their contributions to the Beach community.

Millennium Park at Coxwell and Eastern Avenues features the Walk of Fame honouring the Citizens of the Year as well as a tablet with engravings of 200 names of people who have become donors for the park. Community involvement is big, and Centre 55 held a competition to design a flag for the Beach community. The flag features a stylized image of the Leuty Lifesaving Station and flies proudly at Millennium Park.

We had talked a lot about Centre 55, but I also wanted to get to know Bob Murdoch as a person. Bob shared with me that he is an avid musician. He wrote a sound track for the Terry Fox Story back in 1984. The sound track was not accepted, but it might come out on CD next year, and some of Avril Lavigne’s musicians were involved in the project. But not only does Bob play the guitar, he has recently taken up bag-piping. His wife gave him an entry level bagpipe and some lessons as a present. Bob had an incentive to learn how to play the bagpipe within a very short time: his sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer and was projected to die within 10 months. His bag-piping teacher said that it would be very difficult to play this instrument within less than a year. Bob said that he didn’t have a year, and when his sister-in-law passed away he was standing outside playing the bagpipe and played Amazing Grace at her funeral.

A few years ago Bob’s good friend, Mark Daley from City TV, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and Bob’s father-in-law had been afflicted by the disease earlier. He and Mark talked about the fact that prostate cancer is really a silent disease that men do not like to talk about. Bob decided to organize a whole parade of bagpipers to raise awareness for prostate cancer, and on September 17, 2005, the Pipes and Drums for Prostate Cancer Research, consisting of 325 pipers marched from Nathan Phillips Square to Queens Park, accompanied by the Lieutenant Governor. The masculine music of the bagpipes was intended to be the voice of men who were afraid of talking about prostrate cancer. Bob showed me a photo of the event, and there were bagpipers as far as the eye could see.

Bob Murdoch is a gifted musician and song-writer and here is a sample of his work (go to http://www.myspace.com/togetherottawa, and click on “Marathon” to listen to his partner Doug singing it). Bob is planning to turn the following song into a fundraiser and introduces the song with the following comments:

On the Road to Marathon is an epic song about one person’s battle against overwhelming hardships. It is a message of hope and a call for action from a spirit who’s tenacity of purpose created a force of desire so profound and so passionate that when their determination was brought to bear on their subject their energy and commitment could have animated a lifeless universe.

On the Road to Marathon is a bitter sweet story about the victory of an unsung Canadian Hero. It is based on Herculean strength, duty, hour and sacrifice and the selfless devotion that one person had for the welfare of others.

Similarities are drawn from 490 BC on the plain of Marathon, near the ancient city of Athens where gallant Athenian warriors gave their lives to preserve Greece from conquest by a huge Persian force. Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger, ran 150 miles taking the news to Athens. He ran for two days. The message he delivered to the King was “Rejoice we Conquer”. After delivering the miraculous news, Pheidippides collapsed from exhaustion and exposure and died at the feet of the King. To honour this legendary runner, the Marathon Race was made part of the Modern Olympic Games in 1896.

It was before the Birth of Christ when David drew upon faith to fight the undefeatable and slayed Goliath near the Gates of Ekron using with a sling and a single tiny stone. Terry Fox is an errant messenger and combatant who fights a battle against a terrible killer. He is offering to pass the torch to all of us to take up the conflict. On the Road to Marathon is a song for Terry, a baby faced warrior, who’s promise of youth and who’s rite of passage has included sickness and disease, either of which combined, could not and never will extinguish his flame of hope.

On The Road To Marathon ©

Bobby Murdoch

He ran out to the high way with the west coast on his mind
no ordinary runner on the road just clocking time
if you get the wind behind you, you could run around the sun
no ordinary runner on the Road to Marathon

C H O R U S
Saw sweat bead on top the guard rail like opals in the rain
No ordinary hunter stalking ordinary prey
Race not always won by the swift or battles by the strong
but by the sling and stone near Ekron and on roads like Marathon

C H O R U S
You got the outside track but you won’t turn back in the half light of the dawn
no ordinary runner pacing on to Marathon
In the lamp light of the evening a moving shadow in the halogen beam
no ordinary runner with an ordinary dream

C H O R U S
He ran out to the high way with the west coast on his mind
no ordinary runner on the road just clocking time
Race not always won by the swift or battles by the strong
but by the sling and stone near Ekron and on roads like Marathon

This was a great introduction to some of the many facets that make up Bob Murdoch as an individual. Just before we were starting our tour of the building, Bob pointed out a picture on the wall, depicting him with former Lieutenant Governor Hilary Weston, the former provincial minister of social services and a young lady who had just received a medal. Bob was invited by the Ministry of Culture and Recreation to be on the selection committee for awarding the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship. He became the Chair of the Committee and had to read 12 to 15 binders full of resumes of individuals who had been suggested to become recipients for the award. Amid all these resumes Bob came across one resume that struck him: it was not unusual as far as accomplishments went, the candidate had volunteered in a breakfast program, with the food bank and a seniors program, actually it was not one of the most impressive resumes.

But Bob noticed something unusual about this young woman’s background: she had Down’s syndrome. He asked his colleagues if they noticed anything special about this particular resume and they concurred that there was nothing particularly outstanding about it, until he made them aware of the woman’s disability. Once the committee members became aware of this fact, Doris Bell was selected as the recipient of the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship. Bob refers to this experience as his proudest moment.

Now it was time to start our tour of Centre 55, a former Toronto police station. Bob showed me several multi-purpose rooms that were former police station lockers, or rooms for weapons and communications, or areas for search and seizure. The former detectives’ office is now a multi-purpose room and features a picture of Norman Jewison, one of several prominent (former) residents and community contributors in the Beach. Bob also pointed out that Centre 55 was given a Civic Award of Merit by the Toronto Race Relations Committee a few years ago for their positive work with at-risk youth.

As we walked downstairs Bob pointed out that the building was damaged by fire in 1979 and that the eastern part of the wooden staircase had to be completely rebuilt. Downstairs we walked by Irene who was manning the front desk and Nancy who is the volunteer coordinator. Towards the back of the building are the former garage and the holding cells of the police station which were converted into a nursery school many years ago. One of the rooms was also the location of the Pegasus Community Program, Marie Perrotta’s brainchild, a wonderful daytime program for adults with special needs that I had visited a few days earlier.

So many people depend on Bob Murdoch and Community Centre 55. Bob is an expert in creative fundraising and an accomplished master of ceremonies. Usually Bob is the one handing out awards and giving recognition to others for their contributions. There is no doubt in my mind that for his effort and hard work Bob Murdoch himself deserves a medal, or even better, an Honorary Doctorate in Community Service.