If it was up to Sam Blondeau, there would be colourful murals painted throughout the downtown, plenty of fragrant lilac trees planted and several benches in the city’s core.
These would be but a few gestures to recognize the contribution Ondrej Illini made to Peterborough’s downtown. The 49-year-old man who panhandled for decades in the city died May 4.
Since his death, there has been an abundance of sympathy and reflection and a desire to have Ondrej’s legacy live on for years to come.
Sam, a friend of Ondrej’s for about 20 years, speaks with Electric City Magazine about what she’d like to see as a tribute.
“Honestly, I would love to see murals on any wall that will take one, trees in any spot we can plant them all over Peterborough so we can look around our community and remember this amazing human that has shown us in (a short time) how connected we have been through him for years and we had no clue,” Sam says.
It became apparent in just a few days how many people were friends and acquaintances of Ondrej’s when a GoFundMe page generated about $7,000 and a Facebook group attracted close to 2,000 people.
The money raised is earmarked for a bench and tree.
Beyond that, Sam sees an opportunity to do more for the community, particularly for those who live downtown and are vulnerable. Ondrej had a brain injury and mental health issues.
She would like to see a minimum barrier service “finally come to fruition after years of struggling to get one here that can be sustainable.
“We have an opportunity to create a program in Ondrej’s honour if we can secure a sympathetic landlord,” Sam notes.
“We are working on all the logistics for the memorial pieces while at the same time working on securing a landlord. The landlord is the key piece to accomplishing the minimum barrier service in (Ondrej’s) name where his friends can come and get some rest when they need it.”
Sam recently met with Peterborough’s mayor to discuss the possibilities. As well, she and others are planning to create a Facebook page that will be dedicated to the next steps.
She remembers Ondrej in a variety of different capacities.
As a former front-line social service worker in Peterborough, as well as having her own street history and her mother owning a business downtown, “I was privileged to have had the opportunity to have Ondrej play a multitude of roles in my life. He would help my mom all the time with absolutely anything and every time I was around, I would make sure to check in with him about how he was doing when I was no longer working the front line.”
One of his most well-known panhandling spots was in front of the old storefront of K and C Costumes at Simcoe and George streets.
People who live, work or frequent downtown knew Ondrej as the friendly panhandler, a gentleman who held doors open and wished passersby a good day.
Amber Pula recalls interacting with Ondrej when she was a barista at Black Honey Desserts & Coffee House.
“What struck me most was how comfortable I was in his presence,” Amber says.
“He was unfailingly polite. When I told him to take a coffee, even though there wasn’t a tab for him, he wouldn’t hear of it at first. I got the impression he would never ask for something he felt people couldn’t give. But I told him ‘please take a coffee, I’ll be happy to buy it for you,’” she recalls.
“How thankful he was struck me as well. It made my day honestly. Somehow, he made you feel good about yourself simply by saying ‘thank you’ so sincerely. And his eyes, they were so kind.”
Ondrej had a way of making each person feel like his best friend, Sam concurs. And, he spoke to everyone.
“He was an authentic human. I think that’s what got people about him, he broke the stereotype,” Sam says.
“I think the best thing that could happen would be that if every time you see someone who has to panhandle that people treat everyone the way they would have treated Ondrej because Ondrej would have wanted that.”
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