Today, Calla is the executive director of the largest immigrant service organization in the country. COSTI is made up of 17 locations, 350 employees who speak 63 different languages and serve close to 40,000 immigrants annually in the Toronto region. “I always had a strong interest in social justice,” says Calla, 65, who graduated from the University of Toronto with a Master’s degree in social work. When the position with COSTI opened up, he recalls thinking, “This is an area where I can make a contribution.”
COSTI was founded in 1952 as the Italian Immigrant Aid Society and took on its current name – which reflects its Italian roots, Centro Organizzativo Scuole Tecniche Italiane – 10 years later. The organization’s initial aims were to assist Italians who were new to Canada by helping them learn English and find jobs and housing. Over time, Italian immigration dwindled and COSTI opened up its services to all new Canadian citizens. Today, it offers newcomers to Canada English language classes, employment assistance, housing programs, and counselling services for the elderly. It also runs a mental health counselling centre for Italian families, as well as a centre for Italian seniors. “My own view is broadly based in terms of identifying core values of what it means to be Canadian,” he says. “My work has been focused on being inclusive, and providing opportunities for everyone to integrate and become productive citizens.”
“Today, it offers newcomers to Canada English language classes, employment assistance,
housing programs, and counselling services for the elderly”
Calla’s connection to his work goes beyond his years of experience. The Toronto resident knows the obstacles that newcomers to Canada face first-hand. His father arrived on Canadian soil from Mammola, Reggio Calabria, in 1952. “It was a brave move by my father, and by many Italian immigrants who sacrificed so much,” he says. By 1958, an eight-year-old Calla made the same trip with his mother and five siblings.
Mario Calla with Governor General David Johnston and his wife Sharon Johnston at a COSTI event celebraying Calla’s work with Syrian refugees
Growing up in Toronto, he faced many of the same issues that the people he helps on a daily basis are dealing with. Having gone through the immigration experience, he says he’s sensitive to what newcomers to Canada go through, especially when they’re under 18.
“When I see immigrant youth are not connecting and integrating well, I immediately understand why that’s so,” he says. “As a youth, I didn’t feel part of this society, and at the same time I wasn’t entirely part of Italian society. That, to me, informs how we approach our youth programs.” As part of COSTI’s senior management team, Calla’s goal is to help young people feel supported and encouraged to complete their studies.
This year, Calla and his team played an integral role in helping close to 2,000 Syrian refugees settle in Canada over the course of three months. He says the influx of refugees required special planning and recruitment to see to it that all of these people could be initially accommodated in five hotels. Despite having helped government-assisted refugees for more than 20 years, this particular initiative called for an alternative strategy that involved more staff, volunteers and resources.
“This year, Calla and his team played an integral role in helping close to 2,000 Syrian refugees
settle in Canada over the course of three months“
COSTI’s services were offered right away, with dental exams, immunizations, ESL classes and children’s programs set up in the hotels. “We offered a broad range of services that ordinarily would not be provided in a temporary facility,” says Calla, “so that not only would they keep busy, but they could start the integration process, learning English and understanding our culture right from the beginning.”
Throughout his years of community service, Calla has been honoured with the Ontario Newcomer Champion Award, the Calabria-America Prize and the Queen’s Jubilee Medal. “I’m humbled by it, but I don’t feel that it’s for me,” he says. “We’re an organization that has been delivering these services and providing leadership in the field of immigrant settlement. I’m grateful for [these awards] but I feel that they are more reflective of what my staff has been doing to help newcomers settle.” For Calla, the most rewarding part of his role at COSTI is seeing people feel at home in Canada. “To see the people feel at peace
and know that there are opportunities for themselves and their children is really satisfying,” he says. “It’s about the gratitude and happiness that they feel once they realize that their lives have really changed for the better.” Calla cites one of many recent standout moments on the job was seeing 150 Syrian children getting their faces painted during a COSTI activity.
“Children can pick up on their parents’ anxiety,” he says. “They had been through such a difficult time, living in uncertainty. Yet, here they were, enjoying happy moments with new people who made them feel welcome and safe.”
As Calla continues to oversee the implementation of new programs and resources for immigrants, he says the key is to remain focused on the impact COSTI is making every day. “The bottom line is we’re here to serve,” he says, “and build a stronger country in the process.”
written by Erica Cupido