Twelve teenagers joined us the other night on a walking tour of the Downtown Eastside (DTES).  The point was to show them how important it is to make good life choices and to expose them to what hard core drug use can look like.  At the age when most kids are studying math and science in grades 8 and 9, some of these kids were already regular drug users and some had already had run-ins with police.

Those twelve kids on the cusp of adulthood were a tough crowd.

We gave them a briefing on what to do and what not to say to the people we would meet and then we did the obvious – we separated the boys from the girls and sent each of the two groups in different directions so they could focus on the experience and not on one another.

As I walked with the girls a couple of them walked slightly ahead or slightly behind the group to show us they were able to handle whatever was thrown at them.  They were boisterous and full of nervous energy; their voices raised as they shared a joke and squealed laughter.  This lasted until we rounded a corner and walked into the south lane of the 100 East Hastings St.

One girl plucked up the collar of her sweatshirt and held it to her nose trying to block out the rotten stench of urine.  The others had horrified looks on their faces.  Even the teacher wrinkled her nose in an involuntary effort to stop breathing.

“It stinks!” one girl said.

“Oh my God, I think I’m gonna puke,” said another.

We stood there for a moment to allow their olfactory systems time to file away the bad smell as a memory.  Then we carried on.

At the other end of the lane, just around the corner from the now closed Contact Center, we came upon two drug addicts.  Both were high; one was perched on a cement step in an alcove and watched us with bleary eyes, the other twirled and flitted about the lane, clearly in the throes of drug induced dance.  By now the girls were clustered together in a tight little herd behind me and not one of them was making a sound.  I stopped at a needle disposal receptacle and was explaining why such things were needed when, from around the corner, a woman peeked her head and called out to the girls.  Perfect.  I had been waiting for someone to reach out to the girls and turn the evening from a look and see tour into an interactive experience.

“Hey, kids!  Don’t do drugs!”

Her words were strung-together-very-fast and she pulled out of sight.  A second later she peeked back around the corner to see if she had caught our attention before disappearing again. I kept talking to the girls, knowing the woman would be back, and I was glad to see the girls were ignoring me and craning their necks to see where she had gone.

When she peeked around the corner again I waved her over and gave her a nod.  She stutter-walked over in her four inch stilettos, flinging her long hair over her shoulder.  Her face was marred by years of drug use, her clothing was dirty and unkempt and her fingers were thick with broken, blackened fingernails.  In one hand she clutched a crack pipe which she waved about as if orchestrating a group only she could hear, and when her eyes crinkled in a friendly smile it was clear she had once been beautiful.  In fact, her smile showed that she still was.

“I like your shoes,” one girl said.

“Thanks, but you don’t want to walk in em,” the woman quipped.  Pretty and witty.  And a drug addict.

And so, this young woman told the girls her story.  How she started smoking marijuana and drinking at the age of 13, how she tried cocaine at 15 and how she was turning tricks at 16. Now, at 23, she lived on the street and used crack cocaine everyday (several times a day if she could) with her every waking thought focused on how to score another hit .  She had two children, both in Ministry care, and she told the girls she hoped to get her babies back when she got sober.

The girls didn’t find their voices until later, after we had thanked the woman and were a few blocks away.  One of the girls, who earlier had been striding ahead of the group, now matched my step.  She didn’t so much as pepper me with questions as pepper the air with proof her world had seen a subtle change.  The other girls listened and soon all of them were chattering.  None of them could believe the women was only 23, and a couple of the girls needed clarification on the term ‘turning a trick’.  I was disheartened (but not terribly surprised) that one of the girls had the answer, “It’s when you screw and get paid for it.”

Two hours and several conversations with locals later it was time for the kids to head home.  All of them were more subdued than they had been on arrival to the DTES, and even the ‘tougher’ boys had some of their hard, exterior veneer stripped away.  What the two groups had seen were the same – person after person approached these kids and talked to them about how they, too, had once been young and healthy.  How some of the speakers had come from good families, how some had come from broken ones.  How all the speakers had been caught in the web of drug abuse and how they would never wish their lives on anyone.  How they hoped the kids would stop using drugs and make some good choices before it was too late.  The compassion pouring out of these long-time drug users was amazing, but no matter how poignant their stories, it all comes down to individual choice.

The kids will have to make their own choices, and it is up to us, as adults, to give them the knowledge, support and power to make the right ones.

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