Here’s a simple way to keep our sense of community strong

What makes a community?

This would actually be an excellent topic for community response, a way to build our understanding of what that really means to people.

One of the best definitions I ever heard came from Figure Skating Champion Kurt Browning when he described his home town. His community was so small that everyone knew the names of people’s dogs.

That stuck with me, that definition.

I grew up in a town like that, where if you did something wrong, your parents knew about it before you got home! They also knew when you did something right!

Well, as a ‘community’ our growth in Barrie has lurched our numbers way past that kind of intimacy. But the sense of community is alive and well… on some streets, in some courts where a key group of neighbours have an annual winter party, garage sale, summer barbecue… you get the picture.

While that’s wonderful, there is another way to knit our caring together. It’s through a program called Block Parents. Started in Barrie in 1972 people have been putting the red and white block parent sign in their windows to tell passersby that theirs is a safe place.

Darlene Steingard became a block parent when her second child was born. He’s now 15 years old. By placing that sign in her window (and removing it when she goes out) she’s making herself available to a child who’s having difficulty on the way to and from school. She’s opening her caring nature to an old person who’s lost or become disoriented.

Twenty-five years ago, there were 800 block parent signs in windows throughout the community. There were 44,000 people living here.

Now, as our population hits the 140,000 mark, there are less than 200 block parent signs in windows. There are entire areas of Barrie that don’t have one single block parent available.

For Darlene and the small, loyal board of directors, that means there are districts where the entire street is at work, probably south of Barrie, and children have not one single source of help.

There are lots of reasons for this, of course. As we grow, we become less trusting of people, because we don’t know them. People become concerned for their own safety and putting a sign in a window seems like a dangerous thing to do. Kids get bussed and driven almost everywhere because of the family timetable and parents’ fear for their safety. (This is another column).

When times were simpler, help like Block Parents was much more plentiful.

A bit of a dichotomy, I’d say.

Darlene talks about the ‘calls’ she’s had through her Block Parent window sign in the past five years. It’s been mostly seniors who come to her door, trapped in the circles and crescents and drives that confuse drivers who come for help.

“We had another call in the winter. A young boy had been given two bags of flyers to insert at people’s doors. His boss was supposed to come back for him. After two hours in the snow, he came to us; we called his parents who came and took him home.”

Simple, neighbourly care of another person.

Block Parents can be anybody who is at home during the day. Stay-at-home parents, firemen, nurses, teachers, retired people, shift workers… it needs to be someone who is generally at home during the day.

When you go out, the sign goes down. It’s at simple as that.

Block Parents don’t deal in first aid or medical emergencies; they call 911 for that.

You can be a Block Parent by making one phone call (734-1596) or going to the Block Parent website ( You’ll fill out an application form and that goes to Barrie City Police for a criminal records check. Once approved, Ken and/or Evelyn McKinstry will make a home visit and take you through an orientation. A quick report is made if you do take a call and provide help to someone.

So, where are the areas of need? Darlene says virtually the entire city. “Anyone living within a kilometer of a retirement or nursing home, or a school, would be our first priority. Those are the people doing most of the walking.”

She points out that it’s as simple as putting your sign in the window. The familiar red and white sign tells a passerby: this is a safe place to come. We’ll treat you like a good neighbour.

It’s frustrating for a small board of directors to find that our sense of community has diminished as our numbers increase. Being a Block Parent is one valuable way to reach out and make our community a little smaller.

Thanks, Ken and Evelyn. Thanks, Darlene.


Block Parents
To apply: 734-1596