Sault Ste. Marie's long-awaited youth wellness hub project is officially underway and, if all goes according to plan, will open later this year.
An announcement with community partners was held on Friday morning in front of the former Independent Order of Odd Fellows hall on Dennis Street, directly across the street from the bus terminal.
When it opens as a Youth Wellness Hub, it will offer a safe space for youth age 12 to 25 and will house a number of services, including mental health and addiction supports, employment services, housing and income support and anti-human trafficking support, among others.
Arwen Cooke and Abiguale Lecroix are members of New Northern Mentality, a youth-led mental health advocacy group supported by Algoma Family Services. They spoke at Friday's announcement to offer a youth perspective about the need for such a hub in the community.
"A lot of people my age either live with their grandparents or don’t have a stable household, so having this place to come to, to eat and just hang out with your friends is just a great idea," said Lecroix.
Cooke said there is a lack of positive things for youth to do in Sault Ste. Marie and they hope the hub will help to solve that problem.
"There’s just not a lot to do or the things to do are always to go to the mall or we hang out at your house, but none of it is ever in a safe space for youth where you can be sure that you are safe, especially with our current mental health struggles," said Cooke. “Now there is going to be a place where people can congregate safely and not to mention the services that will be offered here that youth can’t access on their own."
Bob Wooley is one of about a dozen active members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a service club that goes back 130 years in the city and once boasted membership in the hundreds. He said it's difficult to see the building sold but is happy it will find a new life serving the community.
“It’s very bittersweet," said Wooley. "“It’s bittersweet because we are very sad to see the building go but super happy that it’s going to the youth in the community.”
The building is being purchased for $180,000, with the deal set to close on Saturday. Current Odd Fellows members were on hand during Friday's announcement to see the building pass from the service club to new owner, the Sault Ste. Marie Housing Corporation (SSMHC).
The lead agency for the Youth Wellness Hub project is Algoma Family Services and CEO Ali Juma said the partnership with SSMHC is ideal.
"Sault Ste. Marie Housing Corporation is the owner, we are leasing from them. That’s their wheelhouse — property management and renovations," said Juma.
The hall was built in 1951 and needs some repair and improvements before it can open its doors as a youth hub. Juma said there is currently a hole in the roof and an elevator will be added to make the building more accessible.
“Our hope would be to have a grand opening this year, but that may or may not happen just because of the extent of the renovations," said Juma.
Mike Nadeau is the executive director of the District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board (DSSAB), which oversees SSMHC. He said a new roof and some electrical work is required.
“For the most part the bones are in really good shape," said Nadeau of the state of the building.
Nadeau said it is possible the hub could open by the end of the year, depending on what the partners who are operating it are requesting for improvements to the building.
“Ali and the community partners are going to be in charge of telling us what they require. Our job is to make sure we are driving and getting the best value for money," said Nadeau.
Those community partners include Canadian Mental Health Association–Algoma, Children’s Aid Society of Algoma, John Howard Society, Algoma Public Health, Indian Friendship Centre, Northern Youth Services, THRIVE Child Development Centre, the DSSAB, SSMHC and the City of Sault Ste. Marie.
So far, $100,000 in funding has been committed by the City of Sault Ste. Marie, with an additional $100,000 by Youth Wellness Hubs Ontario. Algoma Family Services is pitching in $52,000 and $50,000 has been committed by CMHA — Algoma.
Juma said the location across from the bus terminal is key because every youth who utilizes it will be issued a monthly bus pass to ensure they can come and go, or use it to also access employment or other services in the community.
A commercial kitchen that already exists in the basement of the building will also be put to good use for employment skills training and meal prep.
“The fact this has a commercial kitchen will allow us to prepare a lot of meals. There are so many kids right now who are going hungry,” said Juma.