Collaborative HIV-positive peer mentorship program in Saskatoon looking to expand

With AIDS Saskatoon making some big changes — namely, moving all of its operations into the forthcoming first safe consumption site in the province — the HIV-positive peer mentorship system it helps facilitate is looking to do some expanding of its own.

Working as an HIV-positive peer support mentor can be challenging work — which isn’t to say it’s not rewarding.

Operating under an umbrella of harm-reduction and HIV/AIDS support organizations, mentors confront being comfortable with sharing their status in order to help others better understand their own.

“I think it’s really important that it’s an individual who’s got living experience, who’s actually living with HIV as their background,” said mentor Knighton Hillstrom. “It comes off as more tangible. It’s far more rewarding.”

Lyndon Kequahtooway (Left) and Knighton Hillstrom are peer support mentors for people living with HIV.

The work mentors like Hillstrom and Lyndon Kequahtooway do takes them into homes, hospitals and beyond in order to provide compassionate support to others living with HIV. Most recently, mentors were at the Remai Modern Saturday to provide pre- and post- HIV testing support as part of the BODY FLUID (BLOOD) exhibit.

Developed and informed by peers, the Saskatoon peer mentor education program provides training and opportunities for mentors.

AIDS Saskatoon runs the program, but it’s a joint initiative between the four organizations represented by most of the city’s mentors: The Elizabeth Fry Society, Sanctum Care Group, the Persons Living With AIDS Network of Saskatchewan (PWLA) and AIDS Saskatoon.

With AIDS Saskatoon making some big changes — namely, moving all of its operations into the forthcoming first safe consumption site in the province, the mentorship system is looking to do some expanding of its own.

Hillstrom has been with the program since its creation three years ago. He doesn’t work under a specific group but incorporates land-based work, like medicine picking, into his culturally-competent support work. Before working as a peer mentor, he was already doing peer support with PWLA.

Kequahtooway has been involved in peer mentorship for two years and works with Sanctum Care Group to facilitate peer group meetings. He said working as a peer mentor is valuable for mentors as it provides them support and knowledge of their own.

“The education part of this has been teaching me a lot. That’s probably the first step of getting rid of the stigma, to educate yourself first,” he said.

You should do your own research and you’ll come to find there’s ways to deal with it, there’s people out there and this program exists and it’s good to be a part of — it’s good to be part of leading the way and trudging our own path.”

Aside from helping mentors attain a better understanding of the virus and a better grip on their own healthcare, the work provides additional financial support.

However, formal part- or full-time jobs in HIV-positive peer mentorship don’t exist. That’s something to be remedied, said Carli Down, a peer facilitator at AIDS Saskatoon who helped put the program together.

“In all these CBOs (Community-Based Organizations), in the Health Authority, there should be a role for mentors to be there to provide that support,” Down said. “Because they are experts.”

Down and other facilitators are looking to get mentors trained under a broadly-recognized program so that in the future, they may be able to find employment once they’ve completed the mentor education.

But the network wants to go beyond just creating an in-house certification program, Down said.

“What the mentors have put forward, I’m getting to put into provincial training manual,” she said. “It will be implemented top-down seemingly, even though the mentors developed it.”

Beyond that is the internationally-recognized Positive Leadership Development Institute’s (PLDI) training program, launched by the Ontario AIDS Network in 2006.

The program is entirely peer-facilitated and embodies the core principles of GIPA (Greater Involvement of People living with AIDS) and MIPA (Meaningful Involvement of People living with AIDS). It’s also a very high standard of training.

“There’s a big picture going on that’s pretty exciting,” she said. “As long as it makes it so mentors get to have more jobs for what they already do, then I think that’s pretty much the end game.”

Author: AMANDA SHORT, MATT SMITH

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Collaborative HIV-positive peer mentorship program looking to expand