Safe Haven

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Block Parents of Winnipeg still providing children reassurance after nearly 40 years

By Geoff Kirbyson

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When the Block Parents of Winnipeg program was launched in 1975, it had no bigger proponents than Archie Wood, Marvin Mouse and Uncle Bob.

The stars of Archie and His Friends, a kids’ variety show created by ventriloquist “Uncle” Bob Schwartz, which aired at noon on weekdays on CKY-TV, promoted the upstart initiative on seemingly every show. Police officers and volunteers regularly appeared on the program opposite Schwartz and his collection of puppets to let kids know where they could find safety if they ever felt they were in trouble.

Just two years after it started, there were 16,000 households in Winnipeg that would put the distinctive red and white Block Parent signs, featuring a young boy holding a woman’s hand, up in their windows.

Since then, however, the numbers have dropped off significantly, bottoming out at about 3,000 today.

But George Jarvis, president of the Winnipeg operation, is confident he’s seeing the early stages of a turnaround.

There are 180 participating schools throughout the city and even though the household numbers are way down, Winnipeg still has the biggest Block Parent program in the country.

In fact, in some other cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, the program has quietly folded up.

Jarvis attributes the longevity of the Winnipeg program to the support of the local police force as well as a $17,000 annual grant from the City.

The first Block Parent program in Canada was established in London, Ontario, in 1968. Seven years later, Winnipeg City Councillor Bill Chornopyski, spearheaded a drive to bring it to Winnipeg after a child at King Edward School was molested.

Luckily, such incidents are few and far between. Just how many times a child has to run to a Block Parent in Winnipeg is a little hazy. Jarvis says there are usually two to three reported cases per month but there are many more that go unreported because the Block Parents simply forget to call in the incident to the office following the excitement of reuniting a child with their parents.

“The longer you are a Block Parent, (the more) you tend to forget the end-of-incident report you’re supposed to be doing,” he says.

There are also plenty of times when kids ring the doorbell of a Block Parent because of an imagined threat. Jarvis has no problem with that.

“That’s no big deal. At least they have a sense of security,” he says.

Linda Lambert, a Block Parent coordinator in Richmond West, has been involved with the program for a decade, largely because she grew up in a Block Parent household herself and knew that they provided a safe haven for kids.

Just seeing Block Parent signs in home windows on the way to and from school provides much-needed peace of mind for many children, she says.

“If they see the sign, they know there’s a safe place if anything were to happen. The children on my street know we have a Block Parent home and they can come here anytime,” she says.

It’s a strictly volunteer program so Block Parents only put their sign in the window when they’re home and are available to answer the door immediately.

From there, all they’ve got to do is welcome the child or children inside, call their parents or police and wait for their parents or another approved adult to pick them up.

If you’d like to become a Block Parent, call its office at (204) 284-7562, send them an email at bppw@mts.net or visit their website at www.winnipegblockparents.mb.ca.

There is a screening process, of course, to ensure both children’s safety and public confidence in the program. Police and child abuse registry checks are done on everybody over the age of 18 with every application, a process which is repeated every two years.

It worries Lambert when she hears her neighbours say they don’t have enough time to be a Block Parent.

“Putting your sign up for an hour in the evening is good enough. People who think that they have to be available 24-7, well, that’s a myth. If there’s a lost child, all they have to do is make a phone call. They don’t have to treat an injury. It’s not a huge time commitment,” she says.

And that’s a small price to pay for the safety of neighbourhood kids, she says.

“My fear is that the children that need a safe place to go won’t have it. If they’re being chased, lost or hurt, what do they do? (Without Block Parents), they’d have to fend for themselves or go to a stranger,” she says.