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SAFE to reach out to wider audience

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Awareness, sexual activity boosting visits to clinic

The Sexual Awareness For Everyone healthy sexuality clinic has launched a strategy to reach a wider teen audience in the Sea to Sky corridor despite being overwhelmed by a record demand for its services in Whistler.

SAFE supervisor and registered nurse, Marnie Simon says for the first time, the clinic will be reversing its traditional summertime Thursday session closure, because the demand on services has been out of control. Since May 2001 SAFE has been offering just a Tuesday 4.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. service.

"We thought we were lucky if we got five clients per session when we first started in the mid-90s but now we are seeing up to 50 people in a single three hour period," she says. "We don’t know why, but are putting it down to a greater community awareness about SAFE and an increased number of young sexually active people in the town."

Clinic statistics show an almost 100 per cent increase in the number of clients since 1998, when 1,218 used the service, compared to 2,072 in the 2000-2001 financial year. Thirteen per cent of the clients are males, which is well above average, Simon adds.

While SAFE is pleased at the upturn in demand, resources are tight. And a shrinking pool of available volunteers at the clinic is exacerbating the under-resourcing problem.

Each fall approximately 20 volunteers undergo 17 hours of training to become counsellors and help with services such as healthy sexuality education and selling the clinic’s subsidized contraceptives. Simon says the volunteers are invaluable for spreading the heavy workload but more than half of them have left town.

"When we first advertised for volunteers we specified that they had to stay in Whistler more than a year but I guess people’s plans change in such a transient town," she said.

SAFE will be seeking a larger pool of volunteers for the next training session in early September, saying it is pointless to train any earlier because many people will leave over summer. In the meantime SAFE plans to re-open its Thursday 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. session beginning in July.

Simon says the SAFE clinic has made a big difference to lowering the rate of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies in Whistler, although it is hard to put any figures on it.

"Whistler continues to have a high rate of chlamydia which is like the canary test for air for STDs because it is easily contracted and is an indicator of risky sexual behaviour," she explains. "However the rate of chlamydia is not increasing, despite the growing number of young people here and the increase in parties, drugs, alcohol and limited housing options."

Simon says six cases of HIV have been identified in the Sea to Sky corridor since 1996 and the area continues to have a comparatively high level of unwanted pregnancies, which reinforces the need for safe sex education.

For those reasons among others, SAFE is carrying out a healthy sexuality needs assessment in the Pemberton and Mount Currie areas this summer, with a view to bringing SAFE services to the wider community, especially teens. Simon says access to the SAFE clinic is hard for many Pemberton youth and First Nations people in particular, and she would like to see a satellite of the Whistler service in place by this fall. The form it takes will depend on the decisions of the health professions, parents and other community members involved in the assessment, she says.

"It could range from being a mobile clinic to a drop-in centre at the high school, but the long term goal is a fully operational stand-alone service."

Squamish has recently started up a similar venture to SAFE, with support from the Whistler clinic as part of a general bid to improve healthy sexuality education in the corridor.

Simon says general awareness and acceptance about SAFE is improving, but there are still some misconceptions out there. "A few people incorrectly view SAFE as an abortion clinic that pushes contraceptives," she says. "The first thing we talk about is abstinence and education, but in this day and age, early sexuality is the reality and we don’t have a head-in-the-sand approach to it."

She says very few parents refuse to let their children participate in the healthy sexuality classes currently run in the elementary and high schools in conjunction with the Planned Parenthood Association of B.C.

Another way SAFE plans to reach a wider audience is via the Internet. Simon says grant funding from the Whistler-Blackcomb Foundation and the Resort Municipality of Whistler will enable the expansion and improvement of the existing SAFE teen Web site: Whistlersafe.com. SAFE also hopes to establish a presence in the new teen centre in Millennium Place and will continue its outreach programs such as the annual Condomsense campaign.

The SAFE clinic is a partnership between PPABC, Coast Garibaldi Health and the Whistler Health Care Centre.

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