Erin Bilawchuk, left, executive director of the Compass Centre for Sexual Wellness, and Leslie Allen, CEO of the YWCA Edmonton.
Shaughn Butts / Postmedia
A growing demand for sexual health education and supports has inspired two established Edmonton agencies to team up to expand their reach.The Compass Centre for Sexual Wellness announced last week it’s joining the YWCA Edmonton family of services. The new relationship comes at a critical time for a province and city dealing with extremely high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).“You have to up the ante around education if you want to begin to move the needle around the shame and blame issue, and the minute we can pull down those barriers, and people can start talking more freely about sex and sexual activity and what that looks like, I would think that’s when we’re going to see shifts in numbers in things like syphilis,” said YWCA chief executive Leslie Allen.Alberta Health Services declared an outbreak of syphilis on July 16, releasing new numbers that indicate the Edmonton area is at the outbreak‘s epicentre. Almost two-thirds of the 1,536 cases across the province were reported in this region in 2018. That’s almost a tenfold increase over 2014, according to health officials.The solutions, like getting tested for STIs and practicing safer sex, might seem simple, but they require outreach and access to knowledge.“It’s believed that one of the reasons the numbers are so high in Alberta is because we have a really transient population, but I believe it’s because of that lack of education,” said Compass executive director Erin Bilawchuk.But costs for non-profit organizations like Compass keep going up, while funding remains at stand-still and donors hard to come by.Dissolving Compass and delivering sexual health support and education programs through the YWCA’s office on Jasper Avenue frees up more money for staff to deliver services. For example, leasing costs of up to $85,000 per year can now be marshalled towards expanding programming, services, and employee support.Compass programs that will now be delivered by YWCA Edmonton include education for community groups, support for individuals around sexual health, STIs, pregnancy testing and reproductive rights, and multicultural community outreach.“As we’ve seen from the release of the syphilis numbers, sexual health education isn’t just about the anatomy of sex, it’s about everything. It covers myths, healthy relationships, consent, birth control, contraception, STIs, and empowers young people to make informed decisions that will impact the rest of their lives. When they are informed, they make better decisions. They know what a healthy relationship looks like. They have the language and tools to identify for themselves,” said Bilawchuk.Learning about healthy relationships and positive sexuality from easy-to-access internet sources is like trying to learn how to drive by watching the Fast and the Furious, said Bilawchuk.Bringing sexual wellness programs to the YWCA will bring existing YWCA clients closer to services they might need, said Allen. Working under the YWCA’s roof, sexual wellness support and education workers will be working alongside YWCA’s existing counselling and disability services, reducing the need for clients who might be re-traumatized from having to tell their story over and over.Sexual wellness staff will be working out of the YWCA office as of Aug. 21, but are planning for a seamless transition. They will have the same phone number Compass has always had, and are already booking educational sessions for the next school year.The YWCA is also committed to keeping and supporting workers with market value salaries, said Allen. Turnover can be a challenge at busy non-profits, and the YWCA doesn’t want workers to get burned out. “What does that do to a client, who needs one-on-one support?” said Allen.The move, which will see Allen take over the leadership role once assumed by Bilawchuk, is a win-win, both said.“We’re saying hello to better service, more people, better staff wellness, growth and opportunity. The only thing we’re saying goodbye to is a building,” said Bilawchuk.email@example.com