WISH Learning Centre celebrates 20 years!

WISH Learning Centre celebrates 20 years!

It’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since the Learning Centre first opened its doors at WISH.

The program is the result of 20 years of collaboration with Capilano University’s Community Development and Outreach Department, as well as the hard work of countless others, including funders, donors, participants, staff, and volunteers.

For women involved in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade, the WISH Learning Centre became both a physical and mental space for them. By year one, more than 300 women had come through the Centre, with more than a dozen women making it part of their regular routine. Within the first few years, the Centre had distributed hundreds of donated books, journals and reams of writing paper. Women had published newsletters and debated politics, the use of prescription methadone and the role of government in their lives.

“The more we learn, the more we are empowered to help ourselves.” -Learning Centre Participant

One of the purposes of the Centre was to fight some of society’s deep-rooted myths and stereotypes about sex workers and learning, including the erroneous belief that women who trade sex are not “ready” to learn, nor were they interested in building their minds.

“It is the women at WISH who have been the stars. Tough, soft, courageous, smart, resilient, generous, outraged, visionary women who have earned our respect and deserve opportunity,” said Lucy Alderson who is an Instructor and Program Coordinator at the Community Development and Outreach Program in Capilano.

From left to right: Betsy Alkenbrack, Lucy Alderson and Catherine Minchin.

Lucy has been involved with WISH’s Learning Centre from the beginning and has continued to play a key role in the success of the program.  Another significant member of the Learning Centre team was the longest-serving employee in WISH’s history, Catherine Minchin. Although recently retired, Catherine’s dedication, compassion, and patience made her an extremely popular and much-loved member of the Drop-In staff and Learning Centre team. All three, pictured below, have remained cherished members of the WISH community.

“The Learning Centre is important to me because it gives me something else to do besides drugs. It has saved my life.” Learning Centre Participant

Betsy Alkenbrack also played a vital role in the program and has been an instructor at the Learning Centre for the last 16 years. “I started at WISH as a volunteer in 2002,” Betsy added. “After sixteen glorious, challenging, enlightening, heart-breaking years as a Capilano instructor in the Learning Centre. I know the thing I will miss the most [as retirement nears] is the women—laughing, crying, screaming, bragging, debating, comforting, creating, playing—just sharing their lives and their wisdom. I have learned so much. What a privilege it has been.”

During the last municipal election, WISH’s Learning Centre became a polling station for the first time ever.

From day one, participatory action research also played a key role in the curriculum of the program, making sure the voices of street-based sex workers were given a platform. This includes research reports such as “Literacy for Women on the Streets,” which examined the impact of literacy activities on the lives of women working in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade.

“Change in our Back Yard,” is a ground-breaking peer-led community consultation and survey process in which survival sex workers came together to learn formal research and interviewing skills. (Credit: Wendy D.)

“Deepest congratulations to the WISH Learning Centre on your 20 years of providing transformational services and supports in your community!” said Brad Martin, Dean of the Faculty of Education, Health and Human Development. “We, at Capilano University, have been proud to serve as your partners and look forward to many more years of collaboration in the future.,” he added.

Thank you to Capilano University for 20 wonderful years of partnership. Thank you for continuing to work with us to improve the health, safety and well-being of women who are involved in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade.