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Entrepreneurial Community of the Year: Sault Community Career Centre

"What we really bring to Sault Ste. Marie is we're helping to create that diversity. We're helping to create a welcoming community and we're helping with economic growth," said Rains.

The closure of Citizenship and Immigration offices across Northern Ontario means places like the Sault Community Career Centre are becoming a vital immigration gateway for Sault Ste. Marie.

The not-for-profit employment agency has carved out a specialized niche for itself in recent years by rolling out the welcome mat for newcomers to the city.

What began with three employees in 1992 as a community information agency has grown to 24 with an expanded mandate.

The primary goal of the centre is to help clients re-enter the labour market, but it's evolved over time to help older unemployed workers find jobs and it's become a much-needed settlement office for immigrants to Canada.

"We see community gaps and we try and fill them," said Karol Rains, the centre's executive director, once an unemployed teacher from Calgary, who started at the centre in 1995 helping clients update their resumés. "We help people re-invent themselves."

In the past, the welcome wagon was not always out for immigrant newcomers.

Rains witnessed hundreds pack up and leave, citing the lack of social support and a connection to the community.

"When you start seeing newcomers leave because they're not getting the support they need; a smile, a handshake, or just having a coffee with someone, it's simple to see why.

"People don't understand the essence of what it takes to come here. It's kind of flabbergasting considering this whole city is made up of immigrants."

The centre's New to the Sault program, launched in 2006, has helped about 1,000 clients become integrated into the community through diversity workshops and other initiatives.

At their annual Passport to Unity event, a celebration of the Sault's cultural diversity, some entrepreneurial-minded vendors have gained the confidence to go into business for themselves.

"There is Mexican, Portuguese and Indian food (in the Sault) as a result of them starting during the festival," said Rains.

This year's event at the downtown Essar Centre attracted more than 4,000 people and 18 vendors.

"What we really bring to Sault Ste. Marie is we're helping to create that diversity. We're helping to create a welcoming community and we're helping with economic growth," said Rains.

The centre also works with internationally-trained professionals with the paperwork to get their Canadian accreditation.

Rains said what makes them unique from other employment agencies is the lengths that they are willing to go for their clients.

"We've gone to the doctor's office with someone, or the driver's licence office, because they're very intimidated."

The centre loans out its premise to ethnic groups for cultural movie nights and for celebratory functions.

In administering the province's Second Career program, they assist clients on choosing a new career, direct them to post-secondary training and assist them in marketing themselves to employers.

The centre delivers Employment Ontario services for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, along with a wide variety of employment programs and services such as facilitating the matchmaking between employers and those individuals searching for work.

The centre has won numerous provincial awards for its client success rate.

Last year, the centre attained a 70 per cent employment success rate for 837 clients, and assisted 10 per cent in securing training dollars.

The centre offers counseling support for older workers looking for employment and motivational workshops through its Fresh Start program.

Rains knows being out of work for an extended period of time, it can affect one's self-esteem.

"People feel safe when they come in here and they have a feeling that we really are what we say we are."