Despite John Harper’s age, he devotes most of his time to volunteer work within the community of Toronto.
Harper has put in more than 3,500 hours of his time to help others in need.
“Until there’s no more breath and I stop, there’s something I can do with my life,” he said.
Harper, 79, has been delivering affordable meals for East York’s Meals on Wheels program for the last two years. On other days, he and his three-legged rescue dog Pablo, an Australian Red Heeler, visit patients in hospital with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program.
He said Pablo puts smiles on people’s faces while offering them comfort at a time when they need it most.
“Some people have pets at home that they miss,” Harper said. “Being able to have a dog that’s friendly and safe for visiting relaxes them.”
Prior to dedicating his time to East York’s Meals on Wheels and the St. John Ambulance Dog Therapy program, Harper volunteered for a stress centre hotline. Here, he realized he could only do so much in making a difference in someone’s life.
“My job was not to fix anything,” Harper said. “My job was to listen.”
In the volunteer work Harper does now, he can use his physical presence to give people the help that they need. He is happy to help, whether it’s through a hot meal at a reasonable price or allowing people to find joy in petting Pablo.
Three years ago, Harper was diagnosed with a terminal illness of pulmonary fibrosis which restricts his breathing from scarring in the lungs. He was given one to three years to live and has reached the end of his diagnosis.
Harper highlighted that some seniors don’t have friends or family to make sure they’ve made it through the night. But for him, this is a way of keeping tabs on his clients.
“That’s all we’re doing, we’re just checking up on each other, to make sure that we are indeed alive and well,” Harper said
Part of his job at Meals on Wheels is to observe his clients’ surroundings. He said some folks may be slipping into dementia or have other problems, so if he notices they are not managing well he can let the social worker at Meals on Wheels know and they will do a wellness check on the client.
“The big thing is being reliable, to turn up when you say you’re gonna turn up,” Harper said.
He has been recognized for his dedication to the community through the Ontario Senior Achievement Award given to him and 16 others in January. Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell and Minister of Seniors and Accessibility Raymond Cho met Harper on stage during the ceremony to present him the award.
“I am inspired by your dedication in helping seniors across our province,” Minister Cho said in a media release from the award ceremony. “On behalf of all Ontarians, I would like to express my deepest gratitude for your commitment and exceptional service. You are role models for our future and for all ages.”
Another volunteer and evaluator for the St. John Ambulance Dog Therapy program Barbara Ruhr attended the event in support of Harper and described it as a “lovely” and “personalized” afternoon.
Ruhr was mentored by Harper when she first joined the program with her golden retriever named Buddy, and said Harper left a lasting impression on her.
“He’s a real team player and he recognizes that we don’t journey through life alone,” Ruhr said. “We journey through life with others, and by helping others we’re helping them help us have a better world around us.”
Ruhr said Harper can recognize the people who need that visit with Pablo to be a little bit longer.
“He doesn’t go by the clock. He goes by ‘what do you need and how can I help you?’” Ruhr said. “Even if it’s just a fleeting moment of joy or comfort, John is there to comfort.”
The first time Ruhr attended a large event with her first therapy dog for St. John Ambulance, Harper took her under his wing. She said he guided her in a way that modelled to her what to do without explaining or correcting.
Harper is dedicated to spreading the word about the St. John Ambulance Dog Therapy program. Many people in the neighbourhood have told Ruhr that it’s because of Harper handing out a card with Pablo’s picture and biography on it that they know about the program.
“It’s not a coincidence that ‘dog’ is ‘god’ spelled backwards,” Harper said. “There’s two types of unconditional love: the love of dog and the love of god. And Pablo certainly gives the love of dog.”
Harper said that he will continue to find ways to help others like reaching out through phone calls, even when he is not able to physically move around anymore.