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Bob Duff’s Barton Lecture provides an interesting twist

The Barton Lecture was created in honour of Eric Barton, a second generation Old Boy and former Upper Canada College principal who introduced a community service program to the school in the early 1990s.

This annual lecture was created to invite speakers from outside the UCC community to help boys learn about some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized people. UCC Upper School teacher, character integrator and Old Boy Craig Parkinson was a student during the Barton era and, before introducing this year’s lecturer on Oct. 5, he related his College community service experiences and how they inspired him to embrace volunteering and working with those on the margins as he grew older.

Parkinson showed a video featuring Ronald Davis, a homeless Chicago man who tells his story of life on the streets, and asked the boys to be mindful of how their impressions and feelings changed as he talked about his situation.

“What I hope you noticed, and can learn from Ronald, is that we are all the same,” said Parkinson.

“We’re all part of one large human family. We all want to be recognized and valued. We all want to know that we matter and have something to offer.”

Parkinson then introduced Bob Duff — who went from studying law in the United States after obtaining two degrees at Canadian universities, and having an office on the 52nd floor of Toronto’s Commerce Court office tower on the corner of King and Bay, to living on a street grate at that same intersection after a series of unfortunate circumstances.

A United Way outreach worker engaged with Duff some 20 years ago and told him he would die if he didn’t get off the street. After a near successful suicide attempt, that display of caring started Duff on the long road to recovery and receiving the support he needed.

As someone who knows homelessness on an all-too-intimate basis, Duff has since dedicated his life to helping those who find themselves in similar situations to what he once experienced. He’s the executive director of Toronto’s St. Simon’s Shelter, a multi-service agency providing emergency shelter and programming support services for the most vulnerable and at-risk members of society.

Duff shared a story from one such person named “John” to the students. He described John as being: more than six feet tall, but weighing just 133 pounds; in poor mental and physical health; and on a downward spiral. Today, John is now very much alive and fully integrated back into the world thanks to the resources of multiple agencies and his own hard work.

“If my friend John was here, he would tell about the loves of his life,” Duff said.

“The love he has for his 13-year-old daughter, the latest addition to his family. The love he has for a renewed relationship with two adult children from a previous marriage. The love he has for his community and work. The love and sense of self-care that he has for himself which didn’t exist more than 20 years ago when he attempted to end his life. And, understandably so, the love he has for community involvement.

“Why do I know so much about John? It is the nature of the work we do 365 days a year at all of our agencies. I have another advantage. I co-habit with John. I see him daily and know his family members, friends and co-workers.

“I am John.”

Before leaving the Laidlaw Hall stage, Duff took questions from what he calls “very engaged” students and was impressed with how “involved and evolved” their queries were.

It seems that UCC students have embraced the notion of community service and the interest in those less fortunate than them that Barton first tried to instill some 20 years ago.