Downtown space selected for Access Open Minds

by Sarnia Observer

A former bank branch in downtown Sarnia will, over the next several months, transform into a mental health and addictions-focused space for youth.

The former CIBC branch at 190 Front St., vacuous and bright Friday as dignitaries gathered, has been announced as the future location of the Access Open Minds Sarnia-Lambton facility for 11-25-year-olds.

The model – 14 sites currently exist across Canada and one in Chatham-Kent has helped more than 900 youth since it opened in 2016 – is designed to make accessing help easier for the one in five on average who suffer with mental health and substance use disorders.

The Access Open Minds model, officials said, includes youth in designing the space and programming, cuts down waits, and provides easy access to supports for things like housing and social assistance.

A lease agreement for the space – aims are to have it renovated and open by next September – is being worked out with the County of Lambton, said Paula Reaume-Zimmer, integrated vice president of mental health and addictions with Bluewater Health and the Canadian Mental Health Agency Lambton-Kent.

St. Clair Child and Youth Services is the other partner agency involved in the project, being funded via philanthropy and community donations.

Imperial Oil added $50,000 to the tally so far Friday, on top of $326,000 raised via the Mike Weir Foundation, and a campaign to raise another $400,000 – including $200,000 in matching funds.

The total goal for the site is $2.5 million over five years.

The need in the community is real, officials said.

More than 100 youth are waiting for counseling service treatments with St. Clair Child and Youth, with an average wait time of 90 days, said the agency’s Sue Barnes.

St. Clair sees about 1,600 youth per year, half of whom are 11-18 years old, she said.

One of the objectives of Access Open Minds is to continue care for youth after they turn 18.

Meanwhile, even finding help in the first place can be difficult, Barnes said. Many who search end up in hospital emergency rooms, from where most are referred back to their family doctors or other community supports anyway, she said, calling that backwards.

Design specifics for the main floor and basement at the former bank building – both with about 4,000 square feet available – are being worked out, Reaume-Zimmer said, adding there’s a lot of opportunity.

The site also features a county boardroom on its second floor that Access Open Minds will be able to make use of, and a large catering kitchen to help with teaching life skills and engaging youth, she said.

Some of the renovations have already begun, she said.

“Access is a game-changer,” said Maura Cook, one on a committee of about 12 youth helping plan for the space.
“Youth won’t have to stumble alone in the dark,” she said.

The vision is still being worked out for how the space will look, but it’ll be more of a hangout spot than clinical, said Janessa Labadie, another on the youth committee.

She and Cook are both 16.

“We are so beyond grateful for the opportunity to have our voices heard and we look forward to having a safe, welcoming space for youth that fits with the vibrant culture of this downtown area,” Labadie said.