The Youth Group — a first of its kind in the city of Ottawa — now provides a safe haven for youth with HIV/AIDS. It’s a response to a feeling by positive youth that they are too often left out by other services.
“It’s okay if you’re HIV-positive,” says Danny Clavette, coordinator of Youth Group. “You’re still a person. It’s just a disease. [We’re here] to reduce the stigma.
“It’s about feeling comfortable here.”
With a bit of help from Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa (YSBO) and the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO), Clavette launched the Youth Group in June. The emphasis will be on social interaction, and Clavette hopes it will help youth between 15 and 26 come out of their shells.
So every first and third Monday of every month, the Youth Group meets at one of YSBO’s rooms — a lounge area with a TV and comfortable couches.
Other Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto offer programs that help youth with HIV/AIDS because there are sufficient people and resources available, unlike in Ottawa, says Clavette.
The idea first occurred when Clavette, a quiet 22-year-old man, was volunteering at ACO last summer. When he saw that some youths would drop in at the centre, he wondered where they went afterwards. And he discovered that there was no program specifically geared to youth with HIV/AIDS.
By December, Clavette was working on the paperwork and in June, he had his first meeting.
Clavette is quick to point out that Youth Group is not an outreach organization.
The Youth Group offers a place where youth with HIV can feel comfortable enough to talk about whatever that’s going on in their lives — a unique peer-to-peer interaction. It provides a space where they can avoid the often-judgemental gaze — from doctors, for example — because they have HIV/AIDS.
Youth often hear half-truths and erroneous information about HIV, says Clavette.
“People, unfortunately, don’t really have all the information, adds Stacey Lauridsen, youth worker and HIV/AIDS educator at YSBO. “They still stigmatize youth for a variety of reasons, like homeless youth.”
Growing up with HIV is not easy. It’s often difficult for youth to disclose their status when everyone is judging them because of it, Lauridsen says.
And discrimination against people because of their status leads many people with HIV to face depression, Clavette says. They face finger pointing on the streets.
Clavette wants youth to be able to stand up and to tell others who judge them that while their health status is a reality, that’s all it is.
“That’s all [what] HIV is about. It’s not the actual disease. The disease is that people keep on judging with people with HIV. That’s where our work is. [Youth Group] is to break the stigma. It’s not a big deal.”