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The Saga of The Panda

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07/01/24

The streets were eerily quiet. Under clear blue skies, birds chirped while squirrels scampered carelessly.

Inside was another story, where typically large birthday cakes had shrunk to single-serving cupcakes, and half a dozen balloons sagged over doorframes. As the COVID-19 pandemic rolled from weeks into months, confused and lonely kids stared longingly out of windows as parents desperately tried to inject some cheer into lockdown life.

Like from the myths of legends, an unexpected hero emerged in Toronto’s west end – a whimsical, dancing panda, determined to bring laughter and joy back to a world turned upside down.

The Origins Of Panda

“I have to give my aunt the credit. She had come up with this idea to visit her grandchildren with a panda mask for their birthday because we were in lockdown and you couldn’t do anything for birthdays,” recalls Renee Proulx, one of the masterminds behind this delightful surprise. “I thought it was a wonderful idea and decided to do the same for my friends’ kids.”

What began as a few birthday visits for friends and family quickly gained momentum. “I thought, why not spread the joy further?” says Renee. She posted in some neighbourhood Facebook groups, offering to bring the Panda to any child’s birthday.

“I visited a few other friends’ kids, and then I just completely opened it up to the neighbourhood. I was posting it on neighbourhood Facebook groups, ‘Hey, if your kid has a birthday, call me up, I’ll come by and dance around as a panda for 15 minutes, Happy Birthday, and give your kid something for their birthday when they’re locked inside’.”

The response was overwhelming. “I ended up buying my own panda suit,” Renee recounts. “I was visiting kids all over the neighbourhood, bringing a bit of happiness to their special day.”

In those early days, the Panda became a symbol of hope. “Some families were too scared to even come outside,” Renee recalls. “They’d wave from the windows while I danced on their driveways. It was a small thing, but it meant so much to them.” The Panda made over 150 visits in just a few months, each one leaving a lasting impression on the children and their families.

Panda’s Journey During the Pandemic

The Panda’s journey during the pandemic was nothing short of extraordinary. As word spread about the dancing Panda, media outlets took notice. “I was on the news twice,” Renee shares with a smile. “Global and CTV both featured the Panda, and that really helped spread the word.”

With each visit, the Panda brought a sense of normalcy and joy. “It was something for their birthday,” Renee reflects. “The kids were so excited, and even the parents were grateful. It was a tough time for everyone, and the Panda brought a bit of light.”

The Panda’s growing popularity also led to unexpected opportunities. “I ended up creating an Instagram account for the Panda,” Renee says. “People started following, sharing their own photos and stories. It became more than just birthday visits; it became a community connection.”

Becoming the Official Mascot

As the pandemic restrictions eased, the Smith Proulx Team saw an opportunity to integrate the beloved Panda into their community events. “We realized the Panda had become more than just a birthday surprise,” Ingrid Smith explains. “It’s become a symbol of our community spirit.”

The first major event featuring the Panda was a Christmas toy drive. “We dressed the Panda as Santa Panda and went around collecting toys,” Ingrid recalls. “We rented a huge van and drove around to people’s houses. The response was incredible. People were so generous, probably because of the pandemic.”

Renee and Ingrid quickly recognized the potential of the Panda to enhance their community engagement. “We decided to make the Panda our official mascot,” says Renee. “Now, Panda is a central figure at all our events, from Easter Panda to Halloween Panda. It’s a great way to connect with the community.”

Themed Pandas and Community Events

The Smith Proulx Panda has since taken on various personas to celebrate different holidays and events. “We’ve had Santa Panda, Valentine Panda, Easter Panda, Halloween Panda, and even Ice Cream Panda,” Ingrid lists with a laugh. “Each event brings its own excitement and fun.”

One of the standout events is the summer ice cream giveaway, held at five local parks. “Ice Cream Panda is a huge hit,” Renee shares. “We set up in parks like Vine Park and Beresford Park, handing out free ice cream to kids and families.” The sight of the Panda, dressed in a fun, summery outfit, scooping ice cream and playing with children, is a cherished memory for many.

“The kids absolutely love it,” Ingrid adds. “They line up to take pictures with the Panda and get their favourite ice cream flavours. It’s such a joy to see their faces light up.” These events not only bring happiness but also foster a sense of community, drawing families together to enjoy a simple, sweet treat on a summer day.

The community’s reaction to the themed Pandas has been overwhelmingly positive. “People look forward to seeing what the Panda will do next,” says Renee. “It’s become a tradition, and we love bringing that joy to our neighbours.”

Impact on the Community

The Smith Proulx Panda has had a profound impact on the community. “The Panda has really brought people together,” Ingrid notes. “Especially during the pandemic, it was a source of joy and connection.”

Testimonials from residents highlight the Panda’s positive influence. “One parent told me that their child couldn’t stop talking about the Panda for weeks,” Renee shares. “It’s those little moments that make all the effort worthwhile.”

The Panda’s visits have also inspired a sense of giving and generosity. “Our toy drives and charity events have been more successful than ever,” Ingrid says. “People are eager to participate and help out, and I believe the Panda has played a big role in that.”

The Panda’s Future

Looking ahead, the Smith Proulx Team has big plans for their beloved mascot. “We’re already planning for future events,” says Renee. “We want to introduce new personas and expand the Panda’s role in our community initiatives.”

Ingrid agrees, adding, “We’re excited to see where the Panda’s journey will take us. It’s become an integral part of our team and our community outreach. We can’t wait to create more memories and bring more smiles.”

Will You See Panda Again Soon?

The saga of the Panda is a testament to the power of creativity, resilience, and community spirit. From its humble beginnings as a birthday surprise during the pandemic to becoming a cherished local icon, the Panda has touched the lives of many in Toronto’s west end.

As we look forward to future events, you’re invited to join us and experience the magic of the Panda for yourself! Follow Panda’s adventures on social media, share your own stories, and stay connected with the Smith Proulx Team. Together, let’s continue to spread happiness and strengthen our community.

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