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Former Whistler student makes a difference in the downtown eastside

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Jannah Wilson never imagined she would be working with Vancouver’s sex trade workers when she graduated from Whistler Secondary School.

She was a ski racer and a member of the first graduating class of Whistler Secondary school. She was on her way to the University of British Columbia to study sciences, tackle the world and make a difference, like all young grads.

Her chance to make a difference came last May after her third year at university when she discovered a women’s drop-in centre/safe house that catered to high risk female sex trade workers.

"What I really wanted to do was get out of my comfort zone, as far out of my comfort zone as I could," she said.

For Wilson, that meant facing her fears of Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside.

"When I drove down the streets in the downtown eastside the doors were locked," she recalled.

"I looked past everything and I realized there was a problem but was somewhat fearful of it. Because of that fear I sort of wanted to, not conquer it, but I wanted to face it."

Every week for the past year and a half Wilson has given up an evening to volunteer at the WISH (Women’s Information Safe House) drop-in centre. More recently she has turned her efforts to organizing a fundraising run next weekend to raise money for the women she helps every week. Some of those women she now considers her friends.

"It’s addicting in a sense helping these women," said Wilson, who is busy applying to medical school for next fall while organizing the WISH run at the same time.

"Most of them are so happy that you’re there respecting them and being there as a friend and because of that they want to be better people."

But Wilson doesn’t sugarcoat the experience of working in the downtown eastside with sex trade workers.

Most of the women are addicted to drugs like coke, heroin, crystal meth or a combination of the above. Some are addicted to booze. Wilson said 90 per cent of the women have Hepatitis C. The Vancouver Injection Drug Users Study, VIDUS, estimates that roughly 35 per cent of female sex trade workers in that area are HIV positive, one of the highest rates in Canada.

The average age these women hit the street is 14 and most don’t have homes or families to turn to.

"It’s a world of chaos down there," said Wilson.

"It’s really in need of help."

And then perhaps one of the hardest realities of the downtown eastside for female sex trade workers is the violence that comes with the territory.

A recent survey shows that over 47 per cent of women in the sex trade industry have had head injuries from assaults. Wilson has witnessed first hand the results of this violence.

"The things that happen to these women that one of their John’s has done to them – it’s insane," she said.

"I couldn’t even fathom anybody reacting in that fashion. They come in with the bluest, purplest bruises, the biggest cuts, torn hair. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the world that surrounds us and that’s, I suppose, depressing – but in a way it’s actually motivating. It motivates me to try to go out there and make the world a better place because there’s so much need."

Wilson said WISH is a haven for these women. It’s a small step in making the downtown eastside a better place. The drop-in centre is open six nights a week from 6 to 10 p.m. to female sex trade workers only. There, in an 800-square-foot room at the First United Church on the corner of Gore and East Hastings Streets, they can get a hot meal, they can get make-up and hygiene products, they can visit the nurse, take a shower, work on their literacy or some arts and crafts. Or maybe they can just sit for a few hours in a place where they know they’re safe. When the doors open at 6 p.m. there’s a mad rush from outside.

Wilson has done the gamut of volunteer jobs at WISH from serving and preparing food to helping with the make-up.

Each has challenges.

"In make-up you sometimes get make-up thrown at you and you get pretty verbally abused at times," she said.

Though she can stand up for herself, Wilson said she prefers serving food at the centre. There she can see a wonderful transformation every night.

She said many women are hypoglycemic when they come in, some of them having gone without food for six days at a time. After they eat she said they turn into "teddy bears."

Since WISH first opened its doors in the spring of 1987, the number of workers using the centre has increased from roughly five to about 150 women. This is just a portion of the thousands of survival sex trade workers in Vancouver.

Wilson admits that it’s hard sometimes, especially knowing that many of the women won’t be able to stop the cycle of abuse.

"What we truly try to do is accept them for who they are and provide self-esteem or provide an environment where they can actually understand or think about what their choices are and possibly take that step off the street... possibly," said Wilson.

"We don’t guarantee that they will get off the street of course."

It’s only a 15-minute drive from Wilson’s home in Vancouver to the downtown eastside. Sometimes the dichotomy of the two worlds is hard to live with as she sets her sights on medical school while her friends at WISH struggle to survive. Sometimes she feels guilty.

"I want to take them home sometimes," she said.

"It’s hard not to go down there and not give money.

"I won’t give money but I’ll give my time because I think it’s a lot more valuable than money."

For the past six months Wilson has devoted her time to organizing the first annual fundraising run/walk for WISH. It will take place at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 12 in Stanley Park. For a $20 fee participants can choose to run or walk four or 10 kilometres. There are pledge forms too to raise money for the centre.

All the money that is raised will help keep the WISH doors open.

WISH is also one of the four finalists for the annual million dollar VanCity award that is given out to a non-profit organization every year. If WISH is awarded that money they propose to create a larger facility that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It would be a Wellness Centre exclusive to women and women’s health with specified times catering to sex trade workers.

For more information about the organization visit www.wish-vancouver.net . There are registration brochures online for the run or e-mail Jannah Wilson at jannah@interchange.ubc.ca.