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Sault's Youth Hub one step closer to reality

Although the real estate transaction is not finalized, the project has significant financial commitments from the province, City of Sault Ste. Marie, Algoma Family Services and CMHA Algoma, among others
Former Oddfellows Hall
The former Odd Fellows Hall on Dennis Street could soon serve as Sault Ste. Marie’s first youth hub. An offer has been made to purchase the building for the hub, which will house a number of services, including a mental health clinician and a nurse practitioner.

A planned youth hub for Sault Ste. Marie is one step closer to reality now that the city and a number of community partners have pooled resources and committed funding toward the project.

Ali Juma was one of the founding volunteers for the Sault Ste. Marie and Area Teen Centre, which opened in 1997 at Collegiate Heights and closed shortly after he moved away from the Sault in 2001.

Twenty years later and now the executive director of Algoma Family Services (AFS) in the Sault, Juma is overseeing the opening of a new youth hub in the city, possibly in the former Odd Fellows Hall on Dennis Street.

“We wanted to create a similar opportunity to have a drop in where they can access services at their leisure, but more than anything have a place just to hang out, access free wifi, learn about what is available to them or just spend some time in a safe place,” said Juma in an interview on Monday. “That is a big concern for us, is the opportunities for a safe place for youth, particularly in Sault Ste. Marie, is limited at best.”

“When I think back to 1997 when we opened that Teen Centre, we had so many youth there and it was great to see so many coming to find a safe place there,” said Juma. “ I am convinced that had that still existed, some of the challenges that we are experiencing as a community would not be to the same extent, because many of those same youth who were no longer able to access the resources back then are the adults of today and some of those are the adults we are hearing about in the downtown core.”

Aside from offering a safe place to hang, the hub will also offer a host of other needed services for youth, including job training,  mental health and addictions services, health care services, child protection services, anti-human trafficking for at-risk kids, as well as cultural programming.

“We want it to be a safe space, but a fun space as well. It’s not all about services, it’s about attending to the well being of our youth,” said Juma. “When we had the teen centre we had people with guitars, with computers and a lot of other activities and a pool table so they could just hang out safely.”

The Teen Centre was opened and operated by a group of volunteers, including Juma. The added benefit of the new proposed youth hub will be a considerable commitment of funding from the province and a promise that Algoma Family Services and its partners will work together to provide needed services in the hub.

So far, the province has pitched in $100,000 toward the project, while Algoma Family Services and Canadian Mental Health Association Algoma have each contributed $50,000.

Juma said he hopes when the purchase of a building is finalized that more partners will come on board.

“It’s more of a ‘when you build it and they will come’ thing. It’s hard to pitch a concept,” he said.

Plans for the hub began prior to the pandemic, but Juma said the effects of COVID-19 have only added proof that it is needed in the community.

“We knew prior to the pandemic that in every wellness indicator, we are not faring as well as other communities across the province. So when it came to mental health hospitalizations or overdoses or substance use — we were scoring much higher than the rest of the province,” said Juma. “Part of it is isolation of our community. While we have many great opportunities here, that bodes well for youth that are able to take part in fishing and other recreational activities and organized sports. But there are youth that are not able to access that, so what is left for them?”

“For those who feel isolated and that was only exacerbated by the pandemic,” he added. “The opportunity to look into developing a youth hub was more important than ever.”

The project got a big boost in March when it was approved for a Youth Wellness Grant from the provincial government. Currently there are 14 youth wellness hubs operating in Ontario and Sault Ste. Marie will make up one of six new hubs.

Unfortunately for the team planning the hub, the former Steelton Seniors Centre site it had been exploring for the project in 2019 was no longer available because it is now being used as transitional housing.

That forced them to look elsewhere, eventually landing on the former Odd Fellows Hall site on Dennis Street as a potential new home for the hub.

“The (Odd Fellows) lodge is ideal just because of where it is situated across from the bus depot, it’s easily accessible, it’s not far from the mall and it’s in an area of need — but we haven’t finalized it. We are still in the exploration stage and still looking at options for us,” said Juma.

It also has a commercial kitchen already built into the basement. That’s something they would have had to build from scratch had the project moved ahead at the former Steelton Seniors Centre.

“The idea of being able to feed youth and even to be able to engage in some kind of social enterprise to empower youth to learn some of the essential life skills that they need to do better on their own, but also look at opportunities for gaining employment,” said Juma.

The building does come with challenges.

“It’s a great building but it hasn’t been occupied in some time,” said Juma. “There are some significant structural challenges that we are trying to get an estimate of what they will be. We know the purchase price but what we don’t know is the rehab price and the renovation price to make it the space we want it to be.”

The plan is for the local social services administration board and Sault Ste. Marie Housing Corporation to purchase and own the building, allowing AFS and its partners to concentrate their funding for operating the services that will eventually be held inside.

On Monday, city council was asked for a $100,000 commitment toward leasehold improvements that will be needed if the sale is finalized. The resolution was passed unanimously.

“It is exciting, it’s a great project,” said Mayor Christian Provenzano during the meeting of council. “Happy to see it getting underway and certainly we will be supportive of it.”

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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