What a difference a year makes.
Back in May 2019, we were at the very beginning of Hart House’s 100th Anniversary year. After more than a year of thinking and planning, Hart House was embarking on a once-in-a-century journey to remember the many ways we invite students to enrich their lives and enhance their understanding of themselves and their place in the broader world. We were making final preparations for a number of special anniversary events, programs and exhibitions focused on the arts, dialogue and wellness that would ultimately bring thousands and thousands of students, alumni and new friends through our doors. Anticipation was running high, particularly as those first few special events approached that were being offered during the University’s annual Alumni Reunion week.
A year later, I am typing this message from the stillness of my home office. Since the middle of March, staff from across the University of Toronto – including anyone from Hart House who is able to do so – have been working from home, like so many others all across the world. I have exchanged the neo-gothic grandeur of the Great Hall for the much more modest dimensions of a windowless bedroom with a leaky skylight and spotty wi-fi. I am not complaining – thus far, my loved ones and I have remained healthy and in relatively good spirits – but glamorous it is not.
In the midst of these changed and challenging circumstances, my colleagues at Hart House continue to amaze me with their creativity and commitment. Immediately upon the physical closure of Hart House, talented folks from across the House set about envisioning, planning and delivering a raft of original on-line programming for students to help them to manage and overcome the unavoidable stress and anxiety that are the insidious companions to the mandated social isolation that is required to bring this pandemic to heel.
Nothing can equal the value or the importance of the self-sacrificing work that front-line healthcare workers and first responders are performing during this public health crisis. Still, those Hart House staff and student leaders who together are generating more than 140 hours a month of original programming to engage students through the arts, dialogue and wellness, wherever they happen to be, are also performing an important service. Students have expressed sincere gratitude for our online fitness classes, our book clubs, our discussion circles, our theatre performances, our “Get Crafty” segments, our home gardening workshops, and the many other offerings that together we have branded Virtual Hart House.
The beauty of the Virtual Hart House is that it offers equal opportunity access to students regardless of where they may be in the world. Students—and there are many—who have been confined to their residence rooms on one of U of T’s three campuses since the shutdown came into effect, others who find themselves stranded overseas, and still others who may be in isolation with family members or roommates but who long for the special form of community to be found at Hart House: there is room for all of them, and many more, in the Virtual Hart House.
And so as we begin the second century at Hart House, we are reminded of what makes Hart House truly unique and important in students’ lives: the opportunity to belong to a community that encourages them to explore new things about themselves, one another and the world around them, and to take sheer delight in what they discover. And you—as a member, alumni, friend or donor of Hart House—are an essential part of that same community. Although the physical grandeur of Hart House is undeniable, it has never been clearer than right now that Hart House is so much more than just a big, beautiful building.
Thank you all for your unwavering support and your belief in the value of the Hart House experience. My sincere best wishes to you and your loved ones for your good health and peace of mind during these difficult days. I hope we will be able to see each other again soon.
John MonahanWarden of Hart House