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Former addict rebuilds life, one course at a time with Island's Street College

Dec 01 2012

When Wayne Dunning's self-esteem hit bottom, depression took hold and his thoughts turned to suicide.

"I used to be a cocaine and heroin addict," Dunning said. "I had HIV and hep C for eight years, and for the last four years, I have had full-blown AIDS."

But his life has turned around over the past two years, and Dunning's self-esteem has soared with his success at Street College.

Dunning started with the four-week basic Street College program, offered by AIDS Vancouver Island and the Society of Living Illicit Drug Users and funded partially by the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

"I was going nowhere until I joined these groups and they gave me different goals," said Dunning, who progressed to the 15-week leadership program and is now facilitating Street College courses with Darrin Murphy, another former addict. "They have built me up to the person I am today."

Street College is one of the successes to celebrate on World AIDS Day today, said AVI outreach worker Heather Hobbs.

"It is reinvigorating educational opportunities for folks that wouldn't usually have them," she said.

The last two courses, taught by Dunning and Murphy, centred around dealing with stigma - a topic on which they both have expertise.

"We've been there and bought the T-shirt," Dunning said.

Much of the course is spent giving people the language and tools to deal with discrimination in a respectful way, Murphy said.

"It's all about hope," he said. "We are trying to instill hope and show how you can turn your life around."

Since the Street College program was piloted in Victoria in 2010, more than 150 people have taken part.

"There's a real feeling of community among the participants," Hobbs said.

"People just get motivated and get involved in the community in other ways."

Participants often start the program because of the $20 per session stipend they receive, but wind up getting involved in the course, Murphy said.

"People open up because they feel safe," Dunning said. "Sometimes people cry during meetings. They get very emotional."

Street College sessions also deal with safer drug use, overdose management and staying healthy on the street - courses that Eric Berndt, AVI communications officer, says may be contributing to dropping HIV-infection rates in Greater Victoria.

"If I can save just one person, I have done my job," Dunning said. "We are giving people know-how around diseases and putting them on a straight path."

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control report says there were 20 new HIV infections on Vancouver Island in 2011, down from 38 in 2009.

That puts the goal of reaching zero new infections by 2015 within reach, said AVI executive director Katrina Jensen.

The decrease in infections comes despite the lack of a fixed-site needle exchange or a safe consumption site in Victoria, but may be related to the drugs people are choosing to use, Hobbs said.

Instead of injecting cocaine, people are choosing to smoke crack, reducing the risk of HIV transmission - although hepatitis C can be contracted through crack pipes, she said.

A key to further reductions is persuading people to get tested, Jensen said.

"Being unaware of one's status and then engaging in high-risk behaviour is often how new infections occur," she said. "This year, we want everyone across the Island to be aware of where to get tested for HIV and be encouraged to do so."

A rapid test that gives results in 60 seconds is available at Cool Aid Com-munity Health Centre, 713 Johnson St. Other locations include Victoria STI Clinic, 1947 Cook St.; Victoria Youth Clinic, 250-383-3552; and VIHA street nurses for people who are homeless.

Meanwhile, the provincial government has committed $19.9 million in new annual funding to expand a program aimed at ending HIV transmission.

Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said Friday the Stop HIV/AIDS pilot, which initially targeted Vancouver and Prince George, is being rolled out throughout the province starting April 1.

The funding will go toward new outreach programs, new HIV testing methods and more frontline staff and will cover other prevention and treatment programs, MacDiarmid said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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