The ASK Wellness Society would like to acknowledge that our programs and facilities operate on Secwepemcúl'ecw, Nłeʔkepmx Tmíxʷ, and Syilx tmixʷ traditional and unceded territories.

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Meet Michael Reed! Mike is the Maverick Work Experience Program Facilitator in Kamloops.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A PART OF THE ASK WELLNESS SOCIETY TEAM?
🔴 Since June 2020.

WHAT LED YOU TO BE INTERESTED IN WORKING FOR ASK?
🟣 I want to work for a company that helps people to recover from addiction and homelessness.

WHAT MAKES YOU MOST PROUD ABOUT YOUR ROLE WITHIN ASK?
🟡 I get to help people find a home, get well, and become contributors to society in a positive way.


WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?
🟢 I enjoy working out at the Kamloops downtown YMCA and I also collect watches.

WHAT IS ONE THING YOU JUST CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT?
🔵 The relationship I have with my two sisters and my daughter and grand daughter, as well as my relationship with God.

CAN YOU TELL US A FUN FACT OR SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT YOU?

🟠 I played Junior A hockey and coached minor hockey.

Mike has yet to meet a challenge he cannot overcome. Known as the Coil Master at our Mattress Recycling Program, he has become even more well-known for motivating and supporting individuals looking to re-enter the workforce. The ASK Wellness Society is lucky to have Mike as a team member and leader within our Employment program. Thanks for all you do, Mike!

Did you know that every 30 seconds, a person dies from a hepatitis related illness? On World Hepatitis Day, which is observed on July 28th every year, we aim to call on people across the globe and raise awareness of hepatitis. Today, we look to encourage a call to action, ultimately aiming to promote prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

So, what is viral hepatitis? Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are five main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. These 5 types are of greatest concern because of the burden of illness and death they cause and the potential for outbreaks and epidemic spread.

While this is a global health issue, many are simply unaware of the worldwide impact of hepatitis. Chronic hepatitis B and C are life-threatening diseases that more than 300 million people are currently living with. These two types of the virus are known as a “silent epidemic”, as globally 80% of those living with hepatitis C and 90% of people living with hepatitis B are unaware. In Canada, even with the increased access to treatment, 25% of people living with hepatitis C remain unaware. These two strains cause liver damage and disease, cancer, and premature death. Due to the reality that the vast majority of carriers are unaware, there is a high rate of unknowingly transmitting the infection to others, further perpetuating this silent epidemic. This infection is commonly found in children and marginalized populations, and the BC Centre for Disease Control highlight that hepatitis C disproportionately affects the following six populations:

The theme for 2021 World Hepatitis Day is “Hep can’t wait!” As seen on the World Hepatitis Day website, there are so many ways in which the world cannot wait. Those who are unaware living with viral hepatitis can’t wait for testing. Expectant mothers can’t wait for hepatitis screening and treatment. Newborn babies can’t wait for vaccinations. People affected by hepatitis can’t wait for life saving treatments, and they also certainly can’t wait for the stigma and discrimination to end. Community organizations can’t wait for greater investment. Beyond that, decision makers can’t wait to act and create policy.

There are effective vaccines and treatments that target hepatitis B and a cure for hepatitis C. What does this mean? It means that the elimination of viral hepatitis is attainable, NOT impossible, so long as we move forward with the mantra of “hepatitis can’t wait!” The first steps to achieving this goal of elimination is increasing awareness of the disease, educating people on risk, and allowing access to affordable treatment and diagnostics. 

To protect yourself against viral hepatitis, and decrease the likelihood of continuing the spread, there are many actions that can be taken:

The ASK Wellness Society started off as the AIDS Society of Kamloops. While we now offer a variety of programs and supports, we continue to be guided by our societal roots in working towards the eradication and treatment of blood borne infection. Our Health Navigation team is here to walk alongside people throughout the treatment process, in providing harm reduction, emotional support, education and advocacy. For further information on the program, check out the Kamloops and Merritt Health pages of the website.

Today, and every day, we stand alongside those in the fight to eliminate hepatitis and other blood borne infections. The following infographics from BC Centre for Disease Control and World Hepatitis Alliance provide further helpful information for those of us who appreciate more visual facts.

Meet Connell McInnis! Connell is the Housing Liaison for our Rapid Rehousing program in Kamloops.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A PART OF THE ASK WELLNESS SOCIETY TEAM?

🔴 About 15 months

WHAT LED YOU TO BE INTERESTED IN ASK/THE SOCIAL SERVICES FIELD?

🟣 I completed my social work degree at TRU in the spring of 2020. During my schooling, I started working at the Kamloops men’s and women’s shelter with CMHA where I found I loved working in this field. I eventually applied at ASK Wellness to broaden my experience and I’m still loving it!

WHAT MAKES YOU MOST PROUD ABOUT YOUR ROLE WITHIN ASK?

🟡 What makes me proud about working with ASK is to be part of a team/organization that cares so deeply for its community and community members. I most enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories about how ASK and other services in town have helped them turn their lives around.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?

🟢 In my spare time I like to be with family and friends! Being in the outdoors, hiking, camping, time spent at the lake.

WHAT IS ONE THING YOU JUST CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT?

🔵 My incredibly supportive wife!

CAN YOU TELL US A FUN FACT OR SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT YOU?

🟠 I still listen to the same rap music I liked in grade 8.

Anybody else feeling a rap battle in their future?! We appreciate Connell and all the hard work he does for the ASK team - thank you, Connell!!

Brenda Major has been a member of the ASK Wellness Society family in Merritt for two years and in that time she has been able to use her own personal and family history to help guide people battling addiction towards a more healthy and stable lifestyle. 

Brenda grew up in St. Paul’s Basin near Merritt, now known as the Coldwater Reserve 1, and she says like many Indigenous Canadians she was surrounded by addiction and substance use from a young age. 

“I grew up with grandparents whom abused substances and learned from that,” she recalls. “They did the best they could but I knew what I didn’t want to be when I got older. For me, substance abuse was a big role in my life and when I started to work here I started to see that I wanted to make a change. I wanted to make a difference because I am a recovering addict myself and having lost my dad to overdose as well I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t realize I would be doing this. Honestly, I didn’t.” 

As for what “this” is, Brenda is a Life Skills Support Worker in the Adult Addictions Supportive Housing (AASH) program in Merritt. AASH links participants to affordable housing options in the community and helps them to maintain that housing while they take part in addictions programming offered by entities such as Interior Health. Brenda’s role in particular includes working with people living with addictions by supporting them to access the resources they need in the community as well as teaching them general daily living skills that many of us take for granted.

“I help people with addictions learn how to focus on just daily life,” she says. “Paying their bills, showing them how to add minutes to a cell phone., supporting them to go to medical appointments, going with them to social work appointments and just support them to say what they need to say.” 

With a large element of the AASH program being daily activities like working on group craft projects, going bowling, and many other skill and confidence building activities, Brenda herself admits when she first started doing this work she was skeptical as to whether it was actually helpful. But when she expressed these feelings to one of the participants who had been in the program for a while she learned she was giving them a schedule, reminding them to eat, and changing their lives by giving them a new routine which is all they wanted. 

“That for me was an eye-opener and really changed my own attitude as to why I was there,” she says as she reflects on how working in AASH has changed her own view of things. “Taking what they’re sharing and learning from their experiences with heavy addictions with drugs and alcohol and everything. Without even looking at myself because I guess in that time I was blind to it. How I changed, I just kind of gradually changed on my own. But when I got it from their point of view it actually opened my eyes up to why we are here.” 

Like all jobs, Brenda experiences good and bad days at work. She notes the rough days are those like one she experienced recently that involved the death of an AASH participant. 

“It was so unexpected and that was hard,” she says. “You see them every day and you talk to them and learn their dreams, you learn their wants, and their habits.  

She says other challenging days are when participants try the program and simply aren’t ready. 

“Then you have to deal with that and not take it personal,” she adds. “Those are really hard things too because I’m a really caring person but I have to understand that’s their battle not mine. I’m only here to walk beside them and guide them.” 

As for what a good day looks like, you can see the passion and joy in Brenda when she gets to talk about the people who she has seen come through the program and moved on to bigger and better things. 

“When you see the person realize for themselves the changes that need to make”, she says thinking particularly of a pair of young mothers she has guided through the program. “These moms who were struggling very hard and the day they walk into the office and say, ‘I’m ready for change. Today is the day and I don’t want to go back.’ Those are my best days because they’re thriving and not only going forward they’re pushing and taking it by the horns and just running.” 

One of those young mothers is Chelsea Johnnie who was profiled in a previous ASK Wellness Society article. She credits much of her success to the AASH program and the smile that comes to Brenda’s face when talking about Chelsea is something to behold. 

“I am so proud right now she’s in a carpentry course will have her first year of carpentry when completed, so she has kept in touch with me,” she says. “She’s in a women in trades carpentry course and she’s actually building deck a houses right now. So, for me, that just makes me glow. She’s got another new vehicle and so much success. She’s got her children and everything is going well. There are no relapses yet so for me that just makes my heart huge. When I first met her, she was so hard on herself and now she’s strong for herself and able to voice those things. Seeing that is huge coming from the person who walked in my door who was so beat down and didn’t love herself.” 

Brenda admits she was able to use her own family story to help Chelsea when she was struggling the most. Brenda knew it was important to Chelsea that she breaks the cycle of addiction in her family so that her children can grow up with different opportunities and role models which is something that Brenda is living proof of. Her own mother battled addiction during her early childhood years and she credits much of what she has been able to accomplish in life to seeing her mother change her own ways. 

“If she hadn’t sobered up it would have changed my life and my daughter’s life,” she says. “I was about six or seven years old when she quit so I was young enough for her to change my life. She just hit 40 years of sobriety. By her changing it impacted my life and that’s impacted my daughter. That’s the exact thing I told Chelsea. If you change your life it will have an impact on your children. So, she asked ‘How do I know that works?’ I told her my mom quit and me and my brothers seeing her quit changed our lives so when I had my daughter I decided she was never going to be afraid to be at home. She will feel safe at home. Those are big changes.” 

Success comes in all forms, however, and Brenda notes that for some that may just mean getting to have a good day or a good week. Whether they are able to work the program through to it’s completion and move on to live independently, or simply learn a few skills that help them achieve their goals when they get further along in their journey, she gets to see the progress in the participants every day. 

“We talk about honesty all the time and how it’s not for us it is for themselves,” she says. “If that’s the only thing they take from the whole program I feel like we’re successful.” 

As for what Brenda has learned about what is missing in her community when it comes to working with people living with addictions, in particular those who are Indigenous, she feels it is the need to provide more support for Indigenous people in urban settings. 

“I myself being from this community was blind to the fact there are homeless people,” she says. “In my culture if you have family, aunties and uncles, then you’re taken in somewhere. But, I hadn’t taken into consideration that on reserve, substances aren’t there. So, where are they going to go? They’re going to go to town and be where the substances are. Now we have a lot of young people in their 20’s and 30’s that are in addiction. How do we educate them? There are not enough Indigenous supports in the community that work on spiritual healing or anything like that.” 

Brenda is one of over 200 people that come to work for the ASK Wellness Society everyday with the goal of improving the health and wellness of the people who walk through our doors and the communities we serve. She says being part of this family has changed her life. 

“If I have a problem I don’t think I can handle I can go to another coworker and ask for help,” she says. “They will come in and try with me or reach out to somebody else and solve this together. If you’re having a hard day they will do their best to make your day better even just by listening.” 

As for a final message, Brenda says she wants to give kudos to her mother who has inspired her to live a healthy and helpful life for herself, her family, and her community. 

There has been a lot of discussion lately about supportive housing in the City of Penticton, in particular what it does not do. Community members and politicians alike have lamented the lack of addictions treatment provided and the lack of enforcement against residents with the belief they are to blame for all the city’s woes. Let’s talk about what it does do. In particular, let’s talk about what it has done for Blair Balch who has been a resident at Burdock House for the past year and what him being housed has meant for Penticton.

In years past, Blair may have been the guy you would see stealing from your local Wal-Mart to get something to sell to buy street drugs. You may have passed him on Main St. while he was sleeping during the day and called a By-Law officer to have him moved along. You may have seen him trying to find a warm place to get somewhat comfortable when the temperature was below freezing and all the beds at the shelter were full. Today, he doesn’t steal to feed his addiction, and you won’t see him sleeping on a city bench or in the snow, all because he has a supportive housing bed and has been engaged with the staff who work at Burdock House.

Now forty-nine years old, Blair grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, with his mother, father, and his older brother. Addiction and trauma played a large role in his life from an early age as both his parents battled alcoholism. At the age of eighteen, he began having run-ins with the law, and it was the beginning of a pattern that has plagued him for many years.

            “Spent the majority of my adult life in jail,” he says. “17 years and 46 days to be exact. And I’ve been an addict more or less since I was 16. It’s progressed from weed to coke to meth.”

            While he was in jail back east, the rest of his family moved west and settled in Penticton in 1990. He completed a lengthy sentence in 1995 before following his family west in hopes of a new start with the support of his family. While for some, a change of scenery can lead to a new path, new choices, and new outcomes; for Blair the move only led to more of the same.

“Constantly in and out of jail and when I wasn’t in jail I was couch surfing or living on the street,” he recalls of most of the two and a half decades he has spent in Penticton. “But that never really lasted all that long … no more than four months and I was back in. That’s when I was harsh into crack. So, I’d get out and start boosting so I can get my dope, then next thing you know I’m back inside.”

His crimes were mostly those that continue to fill up the Penticton RCMP statistics ledger today: property offences, drug dealing, and thefts. When he looks back on those early years when he first got to the Okanagan and as he continued the cycle of addiction, homelessness, and incarceration, what he feels was missing is the same thing we hear from politicians, the police, and service providers today.

“Support … somebody to talk to,” he says. “Peer pressure is pretty bad too, right? So, when you get out and you’ve got all your buddies and they’re still partying it up, stuff like that, you jump right back into it. As much as while you’re inside, you’re sitting there thinking ‘I’m going do things different’, as soon as that gate opens you’re back into your old lifestyle. Might take a day or two but generally you jump right back into it.”

            Though he has been in Burdock House since October of 2019, this is not his first kick at the can, as it were. Blair was given his first chance at supportive housing in 2016 when he had a unit at Fairhaven, which, at the time, was operated by BC Housing. He admits he didn’t make the most of that opportunity, and he was exited from the program back to homelessness.

            “At the beginning they say you’re only allowed fourteen guests per year and I was way past that,” he recalls. “They accused me of selling drugs too but they had no proof. I was, I’m not going to deny it. But the main reason was because of my overnight guests.”

            He says because of that experience and becoming homeless again as a result of his actions, when given a second chance with a supportive housing unit at Burdock House, it made him approach it differently this time around.

            “I’m definitely not doing that again,” he says. “You only have to tell me once, sometimes. There are some rules that are Mickey Mouse in my eyes, but if I want to stay here I need to follow them, right? [Burdock]’s a good place and I’m glad it’s here because it’s saved my life. I would either be on the street using and committing crimes, or in jail, even dead, so I’m glad I’m here.”

            Not only has his time remaining housed at Burdock led to better outcomes within his housing, he also hasn’t had any issues with police or by-laws during this time. 

            “I do have a past so it’s come back to nip me in the bud a few times,” he says of his past criminal charges. “Other than that, I have no intention of going back [to jail] or doing anything that would put me back.”

            Another major scuttlebutt of the supportive housing model is a lack of forced sobriety. There is a belief among detractors that if a person is still embroiled in their addiction they are still a problem. Admittedly, Blair still does use methamphetamine. However, without making the conscious decision to use less, and without being involved in any programming specific to battling his addiction, he has noticed a change since becoming housed.

            “I use a lot less for some reason, I don’t know why it’s just going down and down,” he says. “I have no intention of quitting fully … but I’ve gone from an eight ball of meth a day (around three and a half grams) down to maybe half a gram. I’m a needle user, so I went from doing ten or fifteen shots a day down to maybe two.”

            Of course, Blair is just one example, and he may even be an outlier when it comes to the decrease in the strain on community resources that has taken place by him being housed. So what about those who aren’t yet housed? He notes that for some, even if there was an infinite amount of supportive housing, it still wouldn’t help.

            “I’ve mentioned this place a few times to some of them,” he says. “But, they’ve been on the street for so long it’s almost like the way they live now and what they’re used to. There’s just no getting through to them. They could be on their death bed and they won’t come to any kind of support they’re just used to living on the street.”

            “I don’t know if you can call it a community out there,” he continues. “They got all their friends and stuff like that, but there are some that are screaming to get in a place like this but there is no availability.”

            So, what comes next for somebody like Blair? He has gone from being homeless and excessively using substances while committing crime to feed his addiction, to being housed with reduced drug use to the point he no longer needs to commit crime and is no longer a strain on resources like the RCMP. But where does he go from here? As a forty-nine year old man with the history he has and living on disability for his income, where does a community expect him to go in order to make room for the next person who needs the kind of support he has received to get him to where he is now? These are the questions a community like Penticton needs to be working towards answering.

It has been a long road with many speed bumps and detours along the way, but ASK Wellness Society’s Street Outreach Worker, Brian Wells, has finally found what he feels many of the clients he sees everyday need more than anything: love for himself.

The Early Years

Brian grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, a place he remembers as “good but grimy”, and from an early age, addiction and trauma played a major role in his life.

“I grew up with both parents, but my father was an alcoholic,” Brian says. The deep familial roots of addiction are evident when listening to Brian talk about his own father’s upbringing. “Basically, his mom got told if she drinks again, she will die, and she died the first week out of the hospital. His dad, I didn’t know my grandpa, but he shot himself. And my dad’s sister died of a cocaine overdose at 21.” 

When Brian was 15, his dad was told that he was on death’s doorstep, and if he did not quit drinking immediately, he would die. 

“He ended up waiting four years for a liver transplant and he was the successful candidate,” Brian states. “He got a liver transplant and it bought him 22 more years. He just passed away this past year due to cancer.”

Even though his parents stayed together growing up, Brian still remembers it as being a tough upbringing. While his father worked and provided for the family, his drinking took a heavy toll on the family. “And my mom,” Brian says, “She always let me go with my father. I’d make a scene and she always sent me out with my dad. I never wanted to be with my mom. So, I saw a lot of addiction with my dad.”

            Brian’s own story of drug use and addiction began at the age of 12, when he began smoking marijuana and hanging out with a rougher crowd. By 15, he was using crack and cocaine and was regularly in trouble with the law.

Incarceration

“My first time I got in trouble, I was 13 and got into a fight with my brother and this other group of kids,” he recalls. “The police came and I got charged with assault, so they arrested me and brought me to the detention centre, the jail, and while I was in there, there were four other young offenders in the big bull pen and we basically played hacky sack with a sock and toilet paper. It wasn’t a bad experience.”

            When he reflects on his first time being ‘punished’ by the justice system, with the wisdom of hindsight and the time that has passed, he realizes the trickle effect that first experience has had on his life. The leniency he was shown ended up playing a major role in his apathy towards the rules of society, as he advanced through his teen years. Following his first time in a detention centre, he completed his probation and community service. Shortly after that experience, things began to quickly progress to more serious and harmful behaviour.

“When I was 15 I had already built up my addiction,” he says. “That’s when an older guy convinced me I was able to cash a stolen cheque out of the mailbox and bring it to Money Mart and that I’d be able to cash it. When I was in there, they knew something was up; I was 15 with no ID. I ended up walking out of the place and buddy’s like, ‘Go back, it’s working and it’s going to be good’. So, I went back in and I just didn’t like the vibe, so I walked out and as I walked out, there were two police cars that rolled up and I just kept walking. When I got out, they apprehended another guy that was sitting there because they looked at me as a kid and left me be. So, I kept walking and the teller came out of the Money Mart and said ‘no, no, no, it’s this guy’ so they actually apprehended me and I got told I was going to jail.”

After his first experience interacting with the justice system, Brian expected to see his most recent actions resulting in a bit of a harsher treatment, maybe even some harder time in a more restrictive facility. Instead, he describes what most would think sounds more like a summer camp experience.

“My first experience was pretty kosher,” he says, “well, the second experience the judge was like, ‘You’re going to jail’ and they sent me to a young offender open custody place. The first week there, I was going to the Wild Waterworks, we went to the movie theatre. We started smoking weed on the property because people were having visits, so it was quite the experience being that I’d broken the law and told I was being punished. So, I actually got rewarded, in a sense, because it was a time.”

It is sufficient to say that with this being his ‘penalty’, he was less than inspired to begin walking down a different path in his life. Upon his release, he continued to get into trouble with the law and served a couple more stints in open custody. This was until during one of those sentences, he fled the facility. He says he can’t remember why he chose to run, but it didn’t take long until the law caught up with him.

“Because that time I had left an open secured facility, they said ‘OK, now you’re going to secured custody young offender’,” he recalls. “When I got to the jail, I literally knew twelve out of the twenty-five people in the range. So again, there was really no punishment. It was just a cool out period with a bunch of hoodlums.”

            Brian continued the cycle of incarceration, law breaking, being on the run, and ultimately being caught throughout his teen years. For most young adults, reaching the legal age means you begin to try new things with the new freedoms you are given. For Brian, it meant it was time for a dose of reality.

“At 18, I’d already racked up a few charges and the judge is like, ‘OK we’re sending you to prison, you’re going to the penitentiary now’,” he says. “When I went to the pen, I was 19 by the time everything transpired. So, I thought I was going to go to low-medium, but I had already had a few altercations inside the jail with fights, which unfortunately are a normal affair because violence in jail is normal. So, my thought is, ‘I’m going to be out in one-sixth my time because I’m a young person’. Well, they classified me as maximum security and I ended up having to do two-thirds of my time.”

Addiction

            Brian’s periods of incarceration did little to change his behaviour as a free man. The things he was exposed to in prison were things he would have ended up seeing while out on the street with the circle of friends he was running with. Now, with the step up to an adult facility, he was about to be led down a very different and more harmful path.

“While I was there, I had done heroin and stuff but I never touched a needle,” he says. “That was my first time I ever did IV drug use, was in prison. There, the saying is true: you can find a flap of heroin quicker than a mail stamp.”

Three years later when released at the age of 22, Brian was a heavy IV drug user. He was released from prison with no support, other than being sent back to his parent’s house. He began taking methadone to combat his opiate addiction, but old habits die hard. He once again found himself on the run and missed his dose for three days. When caught and sent back to prison, the doctors said he couldn’t be prescribed his dose again as it was so high, it could kill him.

“So, they cut me off cold turkey and I’d say for a few weeks I was laying on that prison floor and vowed never to touch opiates or narcotics ever again,” he remembers. “I basically lied to myself, of course, and I got right back on it.”

He then spent another twenty-two months in jail, before being released at the age of twenty-four. Previously, the lack of discipline the justice system had doled out to him as a youth had helped guide him down an addictive path. As irony would have it, it was during a final stint in a jail cell that created a new path to help turn his life around. However, it still wasn’t the justice system that led to his change. It was love.

“I met her when I was incarcerated because there was a guy getting visits and I was like, ‘Well if you’re getting visits why don’t you give me somebody to talk to or something’,” he says. “She had a friend and she showed up at the jail and basically she fell head over heels for me.”

When he was released, Brian continued to see her and was introduced to her sixteen-month-old children. Suddenly, he found himself changing his ways for the kids. “I’m the only dad they’ve known,” he says of his relationship with them. “They played a big part. I still got into trouble with the drugs, but I wasn’t committing crime at that point.”

It was not long after his release that Brian and his family felt it was time for a change. “We left Ontario with a one-way ticket in 2005 and ended up in Kamloops,” he recalls. “I thought the geographical change would help because it was just a matter of time before I was going to go back to the addiction and go back to incarceration.”

New Place, Same Demons

            When Brian and his family moved to Kamloops, they found themselves living in an apartment building that has long been synonymous with drug use and all the issues that come with that scene.

“I got there, there was a drug shack right next door,” he recalls.  “A shack in the other building, and then there was a station wagon out in the parking lot where this girl was running her operation out of. Wasn’t long before I started using drugs again and ended up in the [Greystone Apartments] over here. I was just driven by drugs.”

Brian says at this point, he was using heroin, crack, and cocaine, but his drug of choice was opiates. It got to the point where he realized he needed to get some help. He recognized that, like many of the people he knew who had gone down this path before, he would not survive.

“In 2005, I went to what is the Kiwanis recovery place and I successfully did the program in 28 days, which was awesome,” he says. “It really helped. But I feel like in 28 days, you are just putting a band-aid on without really taking care of the problem or the wound. It takes time to dig in and you have to have other supports. Luckily for me, I did get into the facility, but that was ’05 and it’s 2021 now and the problem arises: if you need help today, there is no help today. It’s a process and to get into the detox you have to be actively using. By then you’ve either got a good kickstart and you can do it, or you are just entrenched, and I know people that didn’t even get the opportunity because they’re dead now. When people need help, they need it today, not next week. When you make that commitment or hope to do it, you need to do it now.”

A New Hope

         

As a Street Outreach Worker, Brian works with those who are homeless and/or battling addiction to provide harm reduction and support.

 From there, Brian began to ween himself off methadone and in 2008, at the age of twenty-six, began thinking about what the rest of his life was going to look like. He reached out to the ASK Wellness Society and was introduced to a program that offered construction skills and a chance at a new life for people with a background like his.

“I did six months with a fella here that ran it and it definitely inspired me to learn new skills,” he says. “And the appreciation of ASK Wellness that they do deliver with the main slogan of ‘hope’ and they definitely offer hope.”

After finishing that program, he got a job as a painter. He did on-and-off for several years before he found an opportunity to not only use some of the skills he had learned, but to also give back to the community.

“I saw an opportunity with ASK Wellness about a general building manager at the new property Stollery Suites, which is independent living, a seniors’ building, and a lot of people there with the same background and story as mine and I just ran with it,” he says. “Every day I showed up to work and it was a very awesome opportunity to have.”

After that, another opportunity came available and he moved to the evening outreach position with the Overdose Prevention team. Now, he was working on the street with young men and women who were living the same life he lived as a young man.

“It’s essentially saving lives,” he says of his new role. “Harm reduction, making sure people are cared for and listen to them and do what we can do to offer supports. In the other sense we can offer and do anything, at some point in your life, you have to take responsibility for your actions. That was something that I hadn’t done in my life prior to getting clean and realizing that all my problems were basically at my own hand.”

While he may not have the same education and background in social work as some of his peers, Brian says his background has given him skills you can’t learn in a classroom. He hones in on those skills when he finds people who remind him of his former self.

“I just listen to them and talk to them,” he says. “You can hear the despair when they’re talking. Some of them are like ghosts in shells out there with the drugs. It’s the reality of this disease. I lost hope myself and hope only came back to me by somebody else. Just to be able to talk with them and I know I won’t have the answers to everything, and we all have different life circumstances and pain and trauma. Essentially that is the forefront of the interactions I deal with, is pain.”

“I just encourage and say ‘I was that. I was an IV drug user. I was in incarceration, and I’m a changed person today by my higher power and hard work and determination.’ I just really encourage people to love themselves because that’s ultimately what they don’t have.”

Aside from his work as a Street Outreach Worker, the now thirty-nine-year-old Brian says he lives a quiet life these days. While he is no longer with the woman he met while incarcerated many years ago, he is now engaged to his fiancé, who he describes as his best friend. He loves to spend time with her, his dog, and to live a healthy lifestyle. He also spends time writing rhymes about some of the things he has gone through and what he sees today (click here to see some of his work). Despite his new lease on life and the positive changes he has made, he continues to fight off his old demons.

“As an addict, I fell back into the addiction about six months ago of drinking,” he says. “It put me in a situation that I put myself in of being intoxicated. So, I quit drinking September 26 and haven’t had a drink since. This is a life-long battle [you fight] with the right support network and your own will, and to some a higher power. But, at the end of the day with addiction, you are powerless if you’re entrenched into it. So you’ve got to find something to dig yourself out.”

Having lived on both sides of a life of addiction, he believes what is currently needed is support for people who are willing to enter a recovery program now. It needs to be immediate, when they have something happen that inspires them to change, not weeks or months or years later, depending on the length of a waiting list.

“I’m a big supporter of these programs now that they have like the Dilaudid program and the supports,” he says. “They are preventing crime and stopping people from committing crime and just being a different person.” 

As for what’s next for Brian and what he thinks about when he reflects on his life to this point?

“Even superheroes trip on capes,” he says. “Just trying to be a good person and do the best I can.”

Remember, no such thing as safe drugs in the streets

Dealers cutting product with fentanyl ‘cause it’s cheap

100 times stronger than morphine, one dose will put you to sleep

Not talking counting sheep

Real power, 6 ODs in an hour.

Being found in weed, pills, and powder

New fad. Coroner coming to zip you up in a body bag.

Four deaths in a month really sad. 

Kids left with no mom or dad, all because the dope they got was bad

Addiction, an epidemic the black market is glad to have

Streets not a game. Chew you up, spit you out if you’re lucky.

Many people die getting high, just trying to feel normal.

Prison not the answer, but need for more rehab centers.

So I looked at my own situation I was facing

Waking every day like I was in the movie Groundhog Day

Always the same, mentally drained, suffering chronic pain

Let me be the first to say, I’m an addict

Understand the hesitation in prescribing narcotics

So, forced to go see the street doctor. No degree, but have what I need

I plead

Dear God, please don’t be fentanyl in these pills I receive

No labels or warning, next round could be fatal

Talking two extra grains, the size of salt at your kitchen table

Call in an OD. Coroner records another fatality

A young girl, age sixteen

Solutions needed. Funerals continuously being repeated

Takes one line, one innocent looking line

Another family left behind, crying a river of pain

Drowning in regret

Death’s never had no respect.

Every month, the ASK Wellness Mattress Recycling Program diverts approximately 800 mattresses from regional landfills across the Thompson Nicola Regional District (TNRD). The program aims to extend the lifeline of our local city landfills while contributing to a circular local economy and, most importantly, meaningful job opportunities for individuals with barriers to employment.

We start by de-constructing the mattresses and box springs and sorting materials into different areas of our production line for processing. Through this process, we divert 85% of the waste of each mattress from city landfills, with the goal of one day diverting 100% of the mattress waste for a truly completed circular economy. Foam is pulled from the frame of the mattress and compacted into bales for recycling, spring coils are meticulously removed and placed with metal recycling, and wood frames are refurbished into pallets for a local manufacturing company that ships their products worldwide.

This final step is where we are seeking community aid. The time required for pallet conversion does not allow us to currently keep up with the accumulation of wood being removed from the mattresses. We are reaching out to the Kamloops community with the hope of finding a company, or multiple companies, who could utilize this wood within their own production process. Should you be interested in finding out more, please contact Renata Mrema at 1-236-313-1409.

By Pam Pickering

World AIDS day on December 1, also launches the start of ABORIGINAL AIDS AWARENESS WEEK in Canada. It is a time for reflection: on what we have achieved with regards to the national and global responses to HIV, and what we still must achieve. This years World AIDS Day comes in the midst of another global pandemic, the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The public health response to this is linked. Covid-19 is threatening access to HIV prevention, testing, treatment, and care. Without strategies to meet these needs, we may see a resurgence of HIV that would threaten our public health response to Covid-19.

The joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization have established a global strategy on HIV that includes a target of eliminating AIDS by 2030. Canada has adopted this strategy, including the specific targets of 90-90-90; which is 90% of all people with HIV know their status, 90% receive antiretroviral treatment, and 90% on treatment achieve viral suppression. Canada’s progress on meeting these targets as of the end of 2016; of the estimated 63,110 people living with diagnosed HIV has shown improvement. 86% are diagnosed with HIV, 81% are receiving antiretroviral treatment, and 91% have a suppressed viral load. Canada’s 90=90-90 estimates lie within the range reported by other developed countries such as the US, Australia, the UK, Denmark, and Germany.

Several factors play a role in achieving each of the 90-90-90 targets. There are more options for HIV testing in Canada than in previous years. There are 2 new tests awaiting approval and it is hopeful they will be available in early 2021. The first is the INSTI HIV self test which will be the first tool approved in Canada for people to test themselves for HIV. It is a test that is easy to perform and results are ready in a few minutes. ASK Wellness will be part of this role out by distributing these for free early 2021. In addition, several countries already have the OraQuick Oral HIV test that uses an oral swab rather than a finger pick to detect HIV, and Canada hopes to have approval in 2021 as well. Recent provincial testing initiatives such as “Know Your Status” have increased testing which have lead to new diagnoses.

There are still barriers to HIV testing. Particularly for those at high risk, facilitating early detection through the promotion and availability will help Canada reach the first target.

The second 90-90-90 target (proportion of those diagnosed who are on treatment) continues to be the lowest of the 3 targets. This is true in Canada and other Western countries and may in part be due to the recommendation to treat all HIV infected persons at diagnosis is relatively new. A variety of measure such as ensuring the availability of culturally and gender appropriate educational resources, eliminating barriers to treatment such as cost, developing new drugs and supporting health professionals with resources for appropriate and timely treatment will help in the achievement of the second 90 target. An exciting new drug is on the horizon that will only need to be injected once every 2 to 3 months to aid medication compliance.

After starting treatment many people remain engaged in ongoing care and support to monitor the effectiveness of therapy. These people are able to maintain a suppressed viral load if they take their medication as prescribed and have a drug combination that is effective against their strain of HIV. The effectiveness of such follow up may explain why the third 90-90-90 target is higher than the other two. Certain social, economic, and environmental factors such as the experience of stigma and discrimination, poverty, housing instability or social isolation may influence whether or not a person achieves a suppressed viral load.

The Public Health Agency estimates that 2165 new infections occurred in Canada in 2016 which is an increase from previous years. Among the new infections, approximately 1136 or 52.5% were attributed to gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM). There were 244 new infections attributed to people who inject drugs, representing 11.3%. Heterosexual contact remained constant at 33%, both endemic and non endemic.

The distribution of new infections continues to disproportionately affect certain populations including gbMSM, Indigenous people and people from countries where HIV is endemic. This highlights the need for evidence informed programs that are culturally and gender appropriate. In addition, 1 in 5 new infections is attributed to heterosexual contact among people born in Canada or in a country not on the endemic list, which emphasizes the need for ongoing, broad based prevention and education.

At the end of 2016, an estimated 9000 people or 14% of the 63,110 people living with HIV in Canada, were unaware of their infection. These people are hidden from the health care system so thus cannot take advantage of the appropriate prevention, treatment, and ongoing care and support until they are tested and diagnosed. Since HIV treatment has reduced mortality and new infections are occurring at a rate greater than deaths, the overall number of people living with HIV will continue to increase in the years to come. Strategies aimed at reaching the undiagnosed and increasing the number of people adhering to treatment, could help Canada achieve the first two 90-90-90 targets.

It is the strength within communities, inspired by shared responsibility to each other that has contributed in great part to our victories over HIV. We must continue to put people first. We must end the social injustices that put people at risk of contracting HIV. We must fight for their right to health. There is no excuse for governments to not invest fully for universal access to health. Barriers such as up-front user fees that lock people out must stop. All human rights must be respected, and the criminalization and marginalization of gay men, transgender people, sex workers, and people who use drugs must stop.

As we approach the end of 2020, the world is in very uncertain times and the months ahead will not be easy. Only global solidarity and shared responsibility will help find an affordable and accessible Covid-19 vaccine, end the AIDS epidemic, ,and guarantee the right to health for all.

In a world where it is always the presidents, the CEOs, or other “bigwigs” that become synonymous with an organization and its legacy, it is quite fitting that the figure who most represents the history and impact of the ASK Wellness Society has had on its community and its clients was never an Executive Director, a board member, or even an employee. No, she was simply a volunteer. A volunteer who has dedicated her life to a cause that many have shied away from or even been afraid of; the battle against HIV/AIDS. Of course, if you have had many interactions with the ASK Wellness Society over the past 28 years, formerly the Aids Society of Kamloops, you will know we are referring to. For those who do not know, this is the story of a woman who has lost over 100 friends and acquaintances to the deadly disease and turned that pain into action to make sure future generations would not feel that same hurt. This is the story of Cookie Reimer.

        

Cookie, far left, and ASK Wellness Society employees volunteering for a United Way event

In the early 1980’s Cookie was living in Lillooet and working in a bar where she met a man who would go on to become a life-long friend of hers. He is gay and every month he would make a trip to Vancouver to party and be surrounded by more like-minded individuals than there were in the small Interior community.

“I started to go with him,” says Cookie. “I met the most amazing people. By 1985 I had met hundreds of people. Then they started to be positive.”

Of course, Cookie is referring to what would turn in to an epidemic within the gay community: HIV/AIDS. 

“They partied hardy in those days,” she says. “All the clubs in Vancouver in those days. But nobody knew it was that dangerous to be hooking up for these one night stands.”

All of a sudden what had been normal activity through the 1970’s and early 1980’s, meeting somebody in a bar or club and hooking up for a night before returning to the doldrums of regular adulthood, became deadly.

“It was really unbelievable,” Cookie recalls. “It was the saddest thing. I have been in hospital rooms holding friends’ hands. I have made last suppers for friends that have died. From 1983 to the present I have lost 114 friends and acquaintances to AIDS.”

At the time, the health impacts of the disease alone was horrendous enough, but in the early 80’s the medication used to treat those who tested positive was AZT and other medication cocktails.

“I’m not sure which was harder,” Cookie says. “The medication or the actual disease. It killed them. But that was their choice, period.”

Cookie says going to memorials and getting phone calls of lost friends became a regular occurrence going to memorials. Even as the disease began to slip out of mainstream attention she continued to feel the loss, losing nine friends in 2003 alone.

“One of my friends who died on February the 5th, 2020, his fridge door was lined with meds,” she recalls. “They had all quit working. The cocktail of drugs quit working and he died. Today people can take two or three pills in a day. My friends were taking handfuls of pills twice a day. When the combo of drugs stopped working, you were done.”

Not only was a positive diagnosis a near death sentence for many, but the stigma also that came with it was equally damaging.

“They kept their illness secret,” she says. “They hid their pills if anybody came around. If they were going down to Seattle to party they didn’t take their meds because if they got searched they were turned away from forever. Same as Mexico.”

Cookie goes on to say she would introduce people she knew with a positive diagnosis to other friends of hers and they would avoid shaking hands or even standing to close to somebody with the disease.

In the latter part of the 1980’s, Cookie had thrown herself into volunteerism and advocacy for those who were living with HIV/AIDS. She began taking part in the AIDS walk in Vancouver and had developed a reputation as strong fundraiser from whom nobody could escape.

“Nobody was sacred,” she says. “My doctor, lawyer, dentist, everybody. Nobody was safe from a pledge. Though I did reward a lot of people with my dills and my yum-yum pickles.”

After a lot of time and effort supporting the cause, in 1990 Cookie married her husband and the pair moved to Kamloops where she had plans to focus on things other than her advocacy and volunteering.

“When I moved here I made the big decision that I was not going to volunteer for anything for ten years,” she says.

 It did not take long for her to break her promise.

In 1991 she met Alfons Jalink, founder of the Aids Society of Kamloops which he had started in his basement in 1988, and the Society’s executive Director Mary Ann Sandrelli. At first, Cookie held to her initial promise and did not get right back into volunteering, despite the pleas from the Society. However, by September of 1992 she could no longer resist her desire to rejoin the fight.

 “A few friends came up from the coast and from Kelowna,” she says. “We decided we were going to do the AIDS walk in Kamloops. We met at the Grind on Victoria Street and there were very few people there. Mostly they were hovering around the BBQ for the hot dogs. Not a lot of walking was going to happen. I said to Maryann ‘Let’s walk around this block and when people ask we’ll let them know we’re doing an AIDS walk’.”

And so, it began. When they returned Cookie pulled out $300 and asked Sandrelli who was collecting the pledge money.

“Maryann looked at me and said, ‘Nobody really does the pledges and collects money,’” Cookie recalls. I said, ‘That is the whole idea – to raise awareness and collect money for the organization.’”

A few days later, Cookie was asked to speak to some staff members of the Aids Society about how they should go about fundraising.

“And I went ‘here it goes,’” she says. “So, I talked it over with my husband and he said, ‘you’re not going to be happy if you’re not doing this.’”

Cookie met with the Society staff members and gave them a “rah-rah” speech about what they do in Vancouver. After that, Sandrelli kept in touch with Cookie, asking her to join the board of directors or any other way she could keep her involved.

It wasn’t long before Cookie was in the office every Monday, cooking meals for the Society’s clients who by this time were not just those with HIV/AIDS diagnoses, but anybody who needed a helping hand.

“It was a really mixed bag of people who were down and out and the Aids society was an open door,” she says. “The New Life Mission also served meals, but you had to listen to a sermon before you got fed. Salvation Army also served a meal. Then the United Church started. There were only a few places you could get a meal.”

Initially, Cookie was told she would only be cooking for about ten to twelve people. That rang true for a couple of months. Soon after that, as word spread of the great meals churning out of Cookie’s kitchen, the number of mouths to feed grew to over a hundred. As is always the case though, no good deed goes unpunished.

“The health department came along because we didn’t have a dishwashing system, we just had volunteers who washed the dishes,” she says. “I said to the now Mayor of Kamloops, Ken Christian, because he was the public health guy, ‘Are you kidding me? These people live on the street. They’re eating out of dumpsters. We’re serving them a meal on a clean plate. It doesn’t have to be with a dishwasher.’ Anyway, he shut us down. I was so annoyed. I wrote a huge letter to the editor. But anyway, that stopped.”

While the meals stopped, Cookie’s involvement in the AIDS walk in both Vancouver and Kamloops continued. By the late 90’s she was raising several thousand dollars every year that would go to support the cause. Along with being the top fundraiser, she was also organizing the walk in Kamloops, though she describes it as more like a fair.

“We would get like 200 to 300 people and do it at Riverside Park or Stuart Wood Elementary School,” she says. We would have a band and a really good walk all around downtown. Teachers, doctors, lots of people took part.”

This period was a time of change for the Aids Society. Sandrelli had moved away and was replaced as the Executive Director by Jo Rothenburger who Cookie describes as “so liberal and non-judgemental”. Cookie and Rothenburger hit it off quite well and she was accepted by all the clients and staff, though there were only five or six employees at the time.

Jo served as the Executive Director until she retired and was replaced a couple times before the now Chief Executive Officer of the ASK Wellness Society Bob Hughes entered the scene.

“It was the greatest,” Cookie says of her first memories of Hughes. “The board said to Bob ‘You’ll meet Cookie, whatever she asks for, just give it to her.’” (See a message about Cookie from Hughes below).

As the years rolled on under Hughes’ leadership, the Society began to grow in size and impact. Despite the growth, what Cookie describes as the enthusiasm and aura of the Aids Society continued.

“Bob has this natural way of energizing people and the community embraced his energy,” she says. “His speaking ability and charisma really enhanced our ability in the council and on the streets of the North Shore. It has just come such a long way. I am so proud.”

Overtime, the AIDS Walk in Kamloops and across British Columbia began to diminish. The 20,000 person events in Vancouver now only saw around 1000 people, and in Kamloops the large BBQs in the park were replaced by much smaller gatherings. But one constant remained at the Kamloops events: Cookie did the cooking.

 “We get to about 2017/18 and the stigma around HIV is kind of fading I guess,” Cookie says. “Because of the meds, because of the treatments, people are becoming a little complacent. The walk and the rah-rah around it began stepping back. Kira Haug had come on board in the 2000s as well and was an amazing co-organizer with me.”

“The first meeting I had with her to organize our first AIDS Walk For Life left me a bit intimidated,” says for Haug, a former ASK Wellness Society BBI Health Navigator, “Cookie is a force to be reckoned with! From that first meeting we threw over 25 events, including World AIDS Day, HEPATITIS Awareness Day and Walk With Us. Let's just say she knows what she wants and won’t accept anything less! I am so grateful to call Cookie my great friend and family.”

 In an attempt to rebrand the event, the name was changed from the AIDS Walk For Life to Walk With Us, but interest and participation continued to dwindle. 2018 would also prove to be the final event that Cookie would organize.

“In 2019 I was diagnosed with cancer and I had a huge surgery and I couldn’t cook,” she says. “But the most amazing thing happened. The ladies, the staff and some clients, they made all the stuff I would have made for world aids day. I was two weeks out of the hospital and they were having World AIDS Day and they were having my food. I was able to be there for over an hour.”

Cookie says 2020 has been a year of recovery for her, and she was hoping to get back to doing at least some of the cooking for this year’s event which will not be able to take place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She was also honoured earlier this year by the organization she has dedicated so much time too with the official groundbreaking of Cookie’s Place, a 55 and up housing facility that will be opened in Kamloops in the fall of 2021.

Cookie delivering a speech during the groundbreaking of Cookie's Place.

Despite the drop in attention that HIV/AIDS and those who deal with the disease over the years, Cookie, now 74 years old, still continues to spread awareness where she can.

“I have three grandsons. They’re all teens. They know everything about condoms and safe sex,” she says. “They go ‘Oh granny’, and I say ‘you can’t be safe enough.’”

While she still hopes to “get her groove back” when the world returns to normal and hopes to be cooking again for the AIDS Walk 2021, she has a simple message for all of us:

“Be careful and encourage everyone not to be complacent.”

A message from ASK Wellness Society Chief Executive Officer Bob Hughes on Cookie Reimer:

Hughes and Reimer walking together at the 2018 Walk With Us event

December 1st will always stand as a day that changed my life.  I had just accepted my role as the Executive Director of ASK Wellness Society in 2006 and I was invited to come to the agency’s annual World AIDS Day event to introduce myself.  During that wonderful afternoon, snow began to fall around the then new offices of the agency located at 433 Tranquille Road as we began the powerful opening ceremony led by Paul Legace honouring those who had passed from HIV/AIDS.  An abundance of the most decadent foods filled the rooms of the warm welcoming space that has served as home base for ASK ever since.  At the heart of this most compelling and emotional event was one of the most remarkable human beings I have been blessed to meet, our Cookie Reimer.

Cookie has defined the core values of ASK since its inception.  Compassion, Hope, Inclusion, and Trust are these values and the ethos of the agency stem from the fight against AIDS.  Cookie has and continues to be our local hero having led the entire Thompson Region to understand the impact of what discrimination and stigma had on people living with HIV and to fight for their dignity as they faced the prospect of dying from the virus.  She has literally single handedly raised over a hundred thousand dollars for the organization to support people living with HIV/AIDS in the last twenty years and has fed people with kindness and love for an eternity. Our Cookie is like no other and I am so grateful for all she has taught me as I continue to strive to live to her standard in serving my community to ensure no one gets left behind.  She remains my mentor, my friend, and my inspiration as I recognize the importance of World AIDS Day and the work ahead to build better, more inclusive, and compassionate communities.

It is so easy to forget where we were 20years ago as the world faced the destructive power of HIV/AIDS.  Effective anti-retroviral medications accessible to all were just on the horizon and millions of people across the globe were dying.  Families across the world watched as their parents and children were dying within years of contracting the virus.  In Canada, the epidemic was still being felt in communities like Kamloops where people had to wait until they were sick enough to access medication and living with the virus was something that few would talk about openly. Shame and discrimination were commonplace and thus many lived in the shadows afraid of the repercussions of sharing their torment and fears.  Without the voices of people like Cookie and organizations like ASK, many would have remained hidden and abandoned.  It took courage then to fight for the dignity and possibility of those who lived with HIV in community and this has always been at the heart of ASK Wellness Society.  To stand up for equity and to speak for those who can’t or are afraid to share their voices.

What I describe here could easily be the words of someone living with addictions today and those that work and care about them.  This is the climate within many of the communities ASK works within.  Words of scorn and shame are shared on social media for those living in addictions and without homes and a sense of hopelessness among many of those who walk in our doors. ASK maybe criticized for helping these people;  for providing harm reduction supplies and saving lives, for finding homes when few others will, for offering access to health services that are hard to obtain, and for providing employment opportunities for those who have not worked in decades.  Many of those we work with are consumed by addictions and mental illness and are living feeling hopeless.  These conditions can lead the kindest and most considerate to act in destructive and selfish ways and thus these folks can be difficult to support. Finding compassion while promoting personal accountability is how we have approached our work; something Cookie would support.  

There are lessons to be learned from the HIV/AIDS movement that can be applied to the challenges we face during this addiction’s crisis.  Organizations like ASK must continue to promote inclusive, compassionate, and accountable communities; something the agency did in the early 1990’s when it was formed. Champions like Cookie are needed in the days ahead who believe in people, who believe their voice matters and who aren’t afraid to say they will never give up on the possibility that addictions can be treated and that everybody deserves a home.

On this day, Word AIDS Day, I extend my gratitude to Cookie Reimer and all those who fight for social justice. No one gets left behind…

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