Dedicated to improving Kamloops one vulnerable citizen at a time

Outreach workers travel the city seeking those in need of help

In order to reach the most vulnerable people in Kamloops, you have to have the right outreach workers - people who can elicit trust, goodwill and most of all, confidence that it will get better.

In that realm at least, the city's less fortunate have caught a break. Kamloops is teeming with people dedicated to connecting them with resources that could give them a leg up.

And they're not content to simply sit back and wait for a cry for help. They're hitting the streets, seeking out those who may not even know that help is available.

Among the longest serving and most recognizable outreach workers in Kamloops is Kira Haug who, among her many hats with ASK Wellness, acts as the Travelling Safer Sex Lady.

For the past 18 years, Haug has visited youth throughout the region to talk about avoiding sexually transmitted disease and blood-borne infection.

Mixing a penchant for performance (she's a familiar face on the Kamloops music scene) with a passion for keeping kids safe led Haug to create unique and unforgettable presentations - she even uses a cartoon character.

"When I first started looking at the material that I would have to present, I stood in front of a mirror trying to say the words without going beet red . . . there's some graphic content that doesn't coming out sounding pretty," said Haug.

"By building this little cartoon character and sort of like an act, a show, I think it lightens what I'm doing and I think kids aren't as scared."

The approach appears to work wonders - out of about a dozen groups of 10 youths that Haug speaks to each year, at least half of them reach out to her at some point.

The goal of outreach workers could not be accomplished without crossover among agencies, even though they often compete for all-too-meagre grant dollars.

Tonia Gillespie of the Street School co-operates with about 40 different agencies in town to help marginalized adults access resources to support them while they improve their education.

"If I can do that, you're more likely to improve your literacy, you're more likely to finish school, you're more likely to find a job, you're more likely to being a productive member of our community, you're more likely to be a better parent," said Gillespie.

That "holistic" approach is very the reason she wanted to take on her role seven years ago, she said.

Today, Street School services about 450 students each year, facilitating about 40 to 50 graduations.

And each one of those students has a story that Gillespie draws on for inspiration.

"It's a very gratifying job, not only professionally but personally as well. I'm constantly learning from the amazing people we have in this program," she said. "It's made me view what success means, what commitment means, what courage means."

That courage is always evident among Street School's imprisoned students.

Gillespie's outreach beat includes regular visits to Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre (KRCC).

She remembers one success story in particular - a man with limited education because he spent most of his youth in detention centres.

He's now been clean and crime free for more than three years and is a manager at a Kamloops business.

Just over half of those enrolled through KRCC will continue attending Street School's classes after release, improving their chances at reintegration into society, according to a masters of education case study on the school by Erika Dabner, continuing education teacher at Twin Rivers Education Centre.

"Staff and students alike . . . pointed to the importance of trust in establishing relationships with students," states Dabner's study.

"Sometimes, because they are able to place trust in the outreach worker, students remain connected to Street School despite upheaval in their lives."

However education is only part of what Gillespie does for students.

Dabner's research shows that more than a third of them reach out specifically for help with substance abuse treatment, housing, employment and other short-term transitional needs.

Gillespie's work is believed crucial to their level of success.

One of the KRCC students interviewed was quoted as saying: "She genuinely seems to care. And she's patient, too . . . that's an attribute you really have to have in that job."

Several agencies in town are also dedicated to catching vulnerable youth before they end up jailed or worse.

Interior Community Services youth outreach worker Renata Saat is barely older than many of the street youth she helps, which may go a long way to forming bonds of trust with her clients.

The 26-year-old walks the downtown Kamloops and the North Shore beat chatting with young people hanging out in popular gathering spots.

For the past five years with ISC, her unwavering honesty and upfront demeanour has helped develop trust.

"I always tell them, 'I'm not having conversations that you're not going to know about. You're always going to know what I'm doing and I'm not going to sugarcoat it for you either.' And I find that youth really respond to that."

That trust translates into introductions and access to other groups of youth, some who may be in crisis at home or falling into substance abuse or crime.

That's where Saat comes in. Her most pressing job is to support youth aged 13 to 24 with immediate needs like housing, crisis interventions, drug and alcohol abuse referrals and harm reduction.

"What I like about my job is I get to be in the corner of the person I'm working with," she said. "I get to support them and that's what I really wanted to do."

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