A Community 'Knows its Own Needs Best'

That's the idea behind Literacy Lives, where students create health programs that fill unique service gaps.

By Tom Sandborn 8 Mar 2012 |

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips here.

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Valerie Nicholson of Harvest Co-op: 'This builds our self worth and self esteem.'

On a rainy February afternoon in the downtown offices of AIDS Vancouver, Mikey Arzadon and Valerie Nicholson preside over an open house and member sign-up event for the Harvest Co-op, a new organization bringing fresh and healthy organic food to people living with HIV/AIDS.

Arzadon, a slight young Filipino-Canadian man, who's also an artist, youth worker and Occupy Vancouver activist, helps a new co-op member choose the food he wants to order. Nicholson, a sturdy, tough-looking woman who's survived grueling years in the Downtown Eastside to become an organizer and photojournalist, bustles in and out of the room.

Organic raisins, dried fruits and other healthy snacks are laid out on a long table along with written material about the co-op. Student volunteers from a UBC program greet potential co-op members. By the end of the afternoon, 25 new members have joined.

"People living with HIV need to have seven servings of fresh fruit and vegetables a day," Arzadon explains, "and this co-op can help them reach that goal. Everyone wants to be healthy."

Because members of Harvest will pay for the food they get, Nicholson told The Tyee, "this will help build our self worth and self esteem. But because we can buy in bulk from Discovery Organics, which has been very supportive, and pool our resources, the food is more affordable."

But it's about more than food, Arzadon says. "This project is about contact, dialogue and community building."

The Harvest Co-op will allow members to order and receive food once a month. It is currently open to memberships from people living with HIV, or affected by a loved one's HIV. Memberships are also available for people living with cancer.

'They are all heroes': program leader

The co-op is one of an array of new community initiatives created over the past six months by students in an innovative program at Simon Fraser University's downtown campus. The SFU Literacy Lives program, funded by the federal government's Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, will finish its six-month pilot project in March, graduating 24 learners with certificates in Community Capacity Building.

The program teaches participants the practical skills necessary to identify community needs, organize groups to address those needs, and find funding to translate grassroots visions into ongoing practical projects.

Participants in the program all want to be community leaders, said Shanthi Besso, co-coordinator of community education programs at SFU.

"They have all been recruited through one of six groups that serve people living with HIV here in the Lower Mainland. They are not all HIV positive, but they are all really passionate about making a positive impact on the overall health of their community. They all signed up for the certificate program because they wanted to get the literacy, computer and organizing skills that would allow them to be more effective organizers. Over and over again we have been struck by the learners' willingness to learn, their courage to work across differences and confront prejudices," she said.

"They are all heroes," Besso's colleague William Booth adds. "Not one of them is dragging their ass."

Booth, the community liaison worker for the Literacy Lives project, has worked in HIV education for 30 years. In addition to his current role with the project, he's also a clinical instructor in HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care at the University of British Columbia's College of Health Disciplines and an associate of Panos Canada with a focus on HIV/AIDS.

Booth and Besso, who were family friends long before they found themselves working on the literacy project together, said the Literacy Lives learners worked to "map" their communities and identify gaps in service that needed to be filled. Then they worked over the past half-year to create community responses to those gaps.

In addition to the Harvest Co-op, learners have successfully created projects that include:

• A Harm Reduction Outreach Project, to provide kits including condoms, water bottles and information on available services distributed in the under-served Central Park area of Burnaby.

• An Afro-Canadian Community Kitchen for recent immigrants living in Surrey.

• The Positive Paid Work project, an employment agency that links HIV-positive people with employers that hire without bias.

• The Back in the Game project, devoted to enhancing the involvement of HIV-positive people in health-promoting sports activities.

• The Our Lives, Artists and Allies workshops designed to showcase working and new artists within Vancouver's HIV-positive communities.

• Saving Spirits, a coalition of learners doing outreach to various HIV-positive groups including some on Lower Mainland First Nations' reserves.

• A project providing CPR training for low-income Downtown Eastside residents and members of the Vancouver Native Health Society.

Pilot praise

Experienced staff from local community groups who've worked with Literacy Lives learners during the pilot project are enthused. Melissa Medjuck of the Positive Women's Network told The Tyee she's very impressed with what the project has done for participants.

"We were kind of at a crossroads at the network," Medjuck said. "We'd been growing our program to focus on community and skills development, and lots of our members wanted to give back to the HIV community. Literacy Lives came along with perfect timing for our learners. They have all grown and changed so remarkably during the program. This has been an opportunity for them all. I only hope that Literacy Lives gets further funding so more people from our communities can get these benefits."

Executive director Kim Stacey of the McLaren Housing Society, an organization that also sent some of its members as learners to Literacy Lives, is equally enthusiastic.

"The community knows its own needs best," Stacey said. "Look at how the Positive Work project, which came out of Literacy Lives, is linking HIV-positive workers with supportive employers." She said that Literacy Lives will contribute to removing stigma from people with HIV, and that SFU's involvement helped give the projects more legitimacy.

Sean Spear, associate director of Rain City Housing, said he's a "big supporter" of the Literacy Lives program. He told The Tyee that some participants were once residents of a homeless shelter his group operates, and said they "got a lot out of the program."

Spear described Literacy Lives as a "peer-based project" and praised the program's participants as people who are actively passing on what they learn to others.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Education, Housing

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