At the age of 66, Frank Sarlo retired from a 40-year career as a lawyer in Sault Ste. Marie and started a new life.
In 2009 he applied to the University of Bristol under a special PhD program that offered applicants from around the world a chance to enroll and complete their doctorates under the tutelage of the university's esteemed faculty. Only 20 candidates are accepted each year.
What Sarlo didn't know at the time was that they chose candidates based on how much they liked the candidate's thesis idea.
"I was the only Canadian selected that year."
His thesis on the topic of community organizing was 350 pages by the time he finished.
"When I arrived I found out I wasn't just the oldest student, I was older than all of my professors," Sarlo said. "But I found that all the professors were at least as interested in my life as I was in taking the courses."
His experience as an attorney served him well as he typically wrote prolifically, thoroughly supporting his assertions in the course of his work.
His thesis research led him to interview 31 community leaders in the Sault in 2010 and finding what made them a success in their endeavours.
"It was one of the best times I had in my life," he said. "Doing (my doctorate) was a joy. In fact, I had a big letdown when I finished."
He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Bristol in Bristol, England, on the topic of community organizing in 2013.
Several of the people Sarlo interviewed for his thesis were so taken with his ideas that they joined him in his pursuit of cultivating community leaders to help organize his beloved community and nurture its growth to the benefit of all.
Together they are bringing Sarlo's thesis to life.
"I didn't want to waste all the work that we had done," Sarlo said. "When we started the centre (Centre for Social Justice and Good Works) it was to create the leadership program and through the leadership program do good works and create a sense of social justice."
Fast forward 12 years and we find Sarlo helping to shepherd a flock of up-and-coming leaders in the city as a founder, past president and board member of the Centre for Social Justice and Good Works whose aim is to transform society for the greater good through works of charity and social justice.
The centre was the birthplace of several programs directly benefiting our community including I Love to Move, ACTion SSM (an entrepreneur/employment program) and Sweet Change (a chocolate business that strives to create change through an interactive and hands-on learning environment).
It also traces its roots back to a project Sarlo and other community leaders undertook in 2013, something Sarlo says picked him up again after he completed his doctorate at the University of Bristol and was looking for something else fulfilling and joyful to do.
Sarlo joined a group intent on creating a gathering place for Catholic people at Precious Blood Cathedral on Queen Street where they could learn more about the the area's past and the role of the Catholic church in its history.
Father Hamish Currie chaired the committee and Sam Biasucci, Bob Barbeau, Gerry McGuire, Jerry Dolcetti, Marie Bruno, Gary Dumanski and Joanne Dumanski were also members with Sarlo.
They called it The Journey and it included The Gathering Place, where the Centre for Social Justice and Good Works was conceived and born.
"We were concerned about young people and about passing on messages to them about our history," said Sarlo.
After moving the centre out of The Gathering Place to its current home at 3 Queen Street East, Sarlo and the board decided to focus their efforts more on a non-denominational approach to involving young people in the community.
They wanted to take the values and lessons from the church out into the community and make them real and livable for the next generation; to nurture a new generation of community leaders.
It all started with an initial leadership training course put together and delivered by Sarlo, Peter Vaudry, Brenda Kurczak and Mary Anne Amadio.
Ten students graduated and some returned to work with the centre later. In the course, students chose a project to undertake that would both benefit the community and be a vehicle for them to learn leadership skills.
"There was a study that came out shortly after we formed the centre," Sarlo said.
The Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre came out with a report indicating children in five marginalized areas of the city were in the poorest physical health of the province.
The leadership students decided to take their direction from that study and bring recreation to children in one of the areas of the city the study identified as marginalized.
That first year, in 2016, they started the program in partnership with the Community Resource Centre on Gore Street, dubbed it I Love to Move, and started a weekly recreation session for kids in the gym at the Tech.
"It ranged from 25 to 40 children at a time coming out on Saturday mornings," Sarlo said. "We had all kinds of different community groups come in from different recreation areas and teach the kids. Through the kindness of Canadian Tire, we were able to get some sports equipment like soccer balls and provide them to the children and encourage them to keep moving at home."
"The program really worked well in its first year," Sarlo added.
In the second year, it grew to a second location, at Holy Family School in the city's west end. Later, it expanded to four locations covering all five marginalized areas identified by the Innovation Centre report.
In 2019, the centre partnered with the Sault Ste. Marie YMCA which took over programming at two of the four locations while the Centre For Social Justice and Good Works continued to operate two locations.
All the programming has always been offered and supported by volunteers in the community and that didn't change during COVID-19, but everything else did.
"We had to go online," Sarlo said. "We're running the (I Love to Move) program out of The Gathering Place one evening a week."
The centre is now also working with the City of Sault Ste. Marie's Best For Kids program and social services, looking to expand the program over the next year to cover all the social services hubs in the city.
In the summer of 2020, Sarlo and the group at the centre decided to add another element to its I Love to Move program and kicked off The Sweet Change Good Deeds Program, which he said is an invitation to people of all ages, to participate together in social action that improves people's lives and the life the planet.
"Children (6-13) are invited to submit a description of good deeds performed by them for family and friends, our community and/or the environment," Sarlo said. "Those children selected will be invited to a Sweet Change Good Deeds Awards Event at which their good deeds will be recognized and they will receive a number of prizes."
The centre even had a mascot created to help let kids know that they could be rewarded for doing good deeds.
Sarlo says partnerships are vital to building a healthy community for everyone from the youngest children to the oldest seniors.
"We're really happy because we knew we couldn't do this by ourselves," he said. "We have a motto at the centre and that is to create positive change together and the together is through partnerships."
"We've been really fortunate in the relationships we've had with different organizations."
He doesn't think that's an isolated phenomenon, either.
Sarlo cited the example of how former Sault politician of note, Tony Martin, worked with community partners to start a soup kitchen on Cathcart Street in the basement of the former Blessed Sacrament Church. Many community partners came together to build it into the Sault Ste. Marie Soup Kitchen Community Centre which has since become a hub for social service.
"Sault Ste. Marie, throughout its history, has had that feeling," Sarlo said.
In addition to his work with The Centre for Social Justice and Good Works, The Journey, The Gathering Place and his activities fostering community partnerships, Sarlo has also written a book.
Hound Town: One of the Best Hockey Towns Anywhere, published by FriesenPress on Nov. 1, 2016, can still be had in hard copy at Amazon.ca, but only if fans are willing to part with a minimum of $65. For just $9.95, the Kindle edition can be downloaded, but it's dreadfully difficult to get a Kindle book autographed, no matter how kind and accommodating the author is.
"They sold a lot more than I expected," said Sarlo. "It's an amazing thing to be considered an author. It was a joy to do."
His path to publication was a bit winding and led him to another passion in his retirement but he got there through his love for hockey and his hometown.
"I was a lawyer for 40 years so the year before I retired I read everything that I could get my hands on about retirement," Sarlo said. "I had always worked extremely long hours, between my law practice and the community work. I was going constantly. So, I said, 'when I retire, what am I going to do?' I'm going to have to keep busy somehow."
He was inspired by one book in which a lawyer and physician chronicle their progress from retired professionals to authors.
"I thought, 'now that's something I could do for the rest of my life - I could write.'", Sarlo said.
So he went to see Celia Ross, then President of Algoma University, who referred him to the program at the University of Bristol, which ultimately led him to the Centre for Social Justice and Good Works while he was on a quest to become a writer.