Former Whistler student makes a difference in the downtown eastside 

Jannah Wilson never imagined she would be working with Vancouver’s sex trade workers when she graduated from Whistler Secondary School.

She was a ski racer and a member of the first graduating class of Whistler Secondary school. She was on her way to the University of British Columbia to study sciences, tackle the world and make a difference, like all young grads.

Her chance to make a difference came last May after her third year at university when she discovered a women’s drop-in centre/safe house that catered to high risk female sex trade workers.

"What I really wanted to do was get out of my comfort zone, as far out of my comfort zone as I could," she said.

For Wilson, that meant facing her fears of Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside.

"When I drove down the streets in the downtown eastside the doors were locked," she recalled.

"I looked past everything and I realized there was a problem but was somewhat fearful of it. Because of that fear I sort of wanted to, not conquer it, but I wanted to face it."

Every week for the past year and a half Wilson has given up an evening to volunteer at the WISH (Women’s Information Safe House) drop-in centre. More recently she has turned her efforts to organizing a fundraising run next weekend to raise money for the women she helps every week. Some of those women she now considers her friends.

"It’s addicting in a sense helping these women," said Wilson, who is busy applying to medical school for next fall while organizing the WISH run at the same time.

"Most of them are so happy that you’re there respecting them and being there as a friend and because of that they want to be better people."

But Wilson doesn’t sugarcoat the experience of working in the downtown eastside with sex trade workers.

Most of the women are addicted to drugs like coke, heroin, crystal meth or a combination of the above. Some are addicted to booze. Wilson said 90 per cent of the women have Hepatitis C. The Vancouver Injection Drug Users Study, VIDUS, estimates that roughly 35 per cent of female sex trade workers in that area are HIV positive, one of the highest rates in Canada.

The average age these women hit the street is 14 and most don’t have homes or families to turn to.

"It’s a world of chaos down there," said Wilson.

"It’s really in need of help."

And then perhaps one of the hardest realities of the downtown eastside for female sex trade workers is the violence that comes with the territory.

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