The kid gloves were off when a group of teenage girls were recently exposed to the realities of addiction on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
There, they saw a guy smoking crack, girls with black eyes, missing teeth, people shivering in the streets on the rainy night. They saw prostitutes and drug dealers, and spoke with addicts and people with HIV. They heard from street people who were severely beaten up over a $5 debt, and who had scars on their chests where shards of steel from filtering crack had to be surgically removed.
It was street life 101.
Five Sardis secondary students, four in Grade 11, one in Grade 10, were selected to participate in the Odd Squad’s On Track program, a peer-mentoring drug awareness program run by volunteer police officers with the Vancouver Police Department. The intent of the program is for teens to see first hand the effects of drugs, and to relay that information back to their peers.
According to Const. Joel Tobin, Sardis secondary’s youth officer who organized the field trip, it’s often better to expose students of the dangers of drugs than to overly protect them.
Grade 11 student Tianna Byrne agreed.
“If a cop tells me not to do drugs because they’re not good, well obviously I know they’re not good, and if our parents tell us not to, well most of us don’t listen to our parents,” said Byrne. “But [these people] they’ve lived it.”
The Downtown Eastside consists of two blocks through Chinatown and Gastown and has 18,000 residents – approximately 7,000 of whom are addicts.
From 1 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. the Sardis students, accompanied by volunteer police officers, walked through the streets, down darkened alleys, talked to street people on the steps of Carnegie Community Centre, toured a rehab centre, and a rundown motel that was infested with bed bugs and had just one bathroom for all its residents.
“I’m still trying to process it, it hit me pretty hard going down there,” said Grade 11 student Olivia Seroka.
The students selected to participate weren’t necessarily typical students chosen to go on special field trips. Some had had issues in school and had battled the teenage pressures of drugs and alcohol.
This experience hit home.
“I’ve been down the wrong path a couple of times,” said Grade 11 student Alyssa Champ. “It was scary what we saw. I don’t want to end up like the people down there.”
Every addict they spoke to said their addiction started with alcohol and marijuana.
“In high school, the majority do drink [alcohol] and smoke weed and think it’s not a big deal,” said Seroka. “But everybody there told us not to start smoking weed because it’s the gateway drug, it leads to tabs and coke.”
As part of the experience, each student is required to conduct a presentation to middle school students relaying what they saw, which is hoped to have more weight with decision-making coming from their peers than it does from adults.
“Kids always say it won’t happen to me,” said Grade 11 student Ashley Audet. “But nobody there woke up saying I’m going to be a drug dealer, I’m going to live on East Hastings. Nobody wanted to end up like that, it just happened.”