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The Globe and Mail

Soap-recycling program bursts unemployment bubble in Vancouver

Scrub the used bar soaps. Dunk them in sanitizer. Cool them on a rack. Scrub them again to get rid of any dust or dirt. Pack them in a box.

It may seem like dull, assembly line-type work to most, but for some women living in the Downtown Eastside, the job brings a steady paycheque, keeps them off the streets and helps restore their self-esteem.

Since last year, Mission Possible, a Vancouver-based non-profit, has been employing at-risk women to clean and repackage discarded bar soap and bottled amenities from nearly 100 different hotels in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The soaps are then donated to homeless shelters and humanitarian organizations such as World Vision and Samaritan's Purse.

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Recently, a six-month job-training program was added. In addition to the work, the women receive training in time management, teamwork and professional skills so that at the end of six months they will be better equipped for mainstream jobs.

"This is a door opening for many women down here because you're only one paycheque away from being out there on the streets, and a lot of people don't realize that," said Sandra Pronteau, who has been working at Mission Possible for nearly a year. "A lot of these women have really good potential, they love to work, but some of them have never worked in their lives or have never been given the opportunities."

Ms. Pronteau, 44, works many jobs, on and off – acting, making and selling jewellery, doing community outreach work, hosting a radio show, volunteering. But having been born with scoliosis, partially impaired hearing and mobility challenges means she has always had trouble holding a steady job. She was also homeless once. The soap-recycling program is the longest employment she's ever had. Now that she works 12 hours a week, and has recently been promoted to team leader, she hopes this job, supplemented by other sources of income, will be her ticket to self-sufficiency.

"I want to get off the system and that's what I'm hoping this will do, take me to the next level of my life," she said. "A lot of people never gave me that chance because when you're on disability support, they assume automatically you can't work."

The leadership role gives Ms. Pronteau a sense of pride and responsibility, but the job has other rewards as well.

"The paycheque gives an extreme amount of dignity, but it's about more than a paycheque, too," said Brian Postlewait, executive director of Mission Possible. "They know they're doing something positive in the world; they get a sense of purpose out of it."

Ms. Pronteau, along with about 12 other women, earn $8.75 an hour. But an extra dollar per hour is added separately, accumulates over time, and gets paid out when employees find another job. This acts as an incentive for them to find more permanent and challenging work, Mr. Postlewait said.

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"The reality is, soap recycling is not a permanent job, it's something that gets you moving again, gives you a chance to test your boundaries, build some capacity and help you learn what you can do," he said. "Some of [the women] have never received a paycheque before in their life and this gets them thinking about what other things are possible."

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