HIV education for aboriginal youth

Program strives to be fun and culturally relevant

Yúusnewas means "taking care of each other" in the Squamish language and it's a fitting name for a peer-based sexual health program for aboriginal youth.

North Vancouver resident Jessica St. Jean, 28, has managed the program for almost three years and spends her days in different communities delivering educational workshops about HIV and Hepatitis C to groups of young people. Last year alone, the program carried out 85 workshops and reached 500 participants.

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St. Jean says it's important to have a sexual health program that caters specifically to the aboriginal population.

"We are a disproportionately affected group," she explains. "We make up about five per cent of the population in British Columbia and 15 per cent of new diagnoses of HIV, so we're definitely a group that needs a little bit more attention."

"Also, the experience of being an indigenous youth is definitely a unique one that needs to be addressed in a unique way to fit the needs of the group," she adds.

Yúusnewas is a program of Vancouver-based YouthCo AIDS Society, a non-profit organization that works in youth communities most affected by HIV and Hep C. The grassroots organization is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

St. Jean focuses on delivering fun and engaging workshops that leave groups with plenty of questions and the resources to find the answers. "I think my goals are that they feel happy and lighthearted, at least a little bit more, when talking about sexuality and sexual health," she says.

Yúusnewas also strives to take a culturally relevant approach to the issue of sexual health among aboriginal youth.

"Some of the values we have, because of colonization, are pretty harmful to our health, so I hope to break down some of those barriers and help youth to see that we have been affected, but also that all of us can be happy and healthy," St. Jean says. "The creator gave us the gift of sexuality to experience with our partners and it also comes with responsibilities, so it's up to us to figure out the balances of that for ourselves."

St. Jean describes her own high school sexual health education experience as "confusing" and "negative." So she's pleased to be working with an organization that counts "sex-positive" and "youth-driven" among its core values.

"We definitely do a great job at making sure youth have fun and take away relevant information to their lives."

St. Jean says young people today are far more open about discussing sexual health than they were when she was younger.

"It's so great to see youth openly talking about having (HIV) positive family members, or openly speaking out against homophobia. Our youth are amazing."

But she also knows that there is still lots of work to be done. "We have a ways to go and accessing the health care itself, such as testing or contraception, we still need to keep encouraging youth to do that and supporting them to do that."

For more information or to book a workshop, visit www.youthco.org.

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