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Ryan Vena is taking the skills he learned at the Justice Institute of British Columbia’s (JIBC) Paramedic Academy to the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, through an outreach society he founded.

Ryan recently completed JIBC’s Primary Care Paramedic (PCP) program, after finishing the Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) program at the Institute the year before. What he appreciated most about his JIBC experience is the fact their instructors are working paramedics.

“I fully believe a lived experience gives you a step up on someone who’s just learned it from books … you can relate it to a sort of real-life situation.”

Ryan has drawn on his own lived experience for years. Prior to attending JIBC, he worked in the trades then studied social work before sinking into drug addiction. It was while he was in recovery about three years ago that he realized he had lost numerous friends to fentanyl overdoses, part of the recent opioid overdose crisis. Since part of recovery is giving back, he decided to help fill a void, of volunteers providing outreach to people on the ground.

“So I grabbed a backpack full of sandwiches and a Narcan kit, went to the Downtown Eastside and started helping. I had no idea it was going to grow to what it is now.”

Street Saviours Outreach Society was born. Eventually, Ryan recruited other volunteers from his recovery house and then determined the overdoses they were frequently encountering were getting more severe. That’s when he decided he needed more medical training and became a student at JIBC.

I fully believe a lived experience gives you a step up on someone who's just learned it from books

During his EMR course, he told a few instructors what he was doing with the society and sought their advice on how he could improve his care of the people he would find on his patrols. Those instructors mentioned Street Saviours to other JIBC students and the next thing Ryan knew, he had schoolmates approaching him wanting to get involved. 

Word of mouth and social media has led to exposure on mainstream media. It’s all pretty impressive for an organization that doesn’t receive any regular funding and is 100-per-cent volunteer-run.

The society’s activities start out at night when other service providers are not operating, with teams patrolling streets and alleyways in the Downtown Eastside handing out sandwiches, candy and socks. From there, they provide whatever assistance they can, for example, helping to fill out forms to get people into long-term housing, assisting people in entering recovery houses, and referring people to services like detox.

Of course, the fact many of the volunteers have EMR or PCP training means they’re able to help with medical emergencies. Ryan said in the past three years, the society has saved 500 lives. The volunteers’ life-saving efforts have included administering Naloxone in cases of opioid overdose, and medication for diabetic emergencies, calling 911 for people, including a case of sepsis, and tending to a person with an open skull fracture until paramedics could arrive.

“We see a lot down there that’s for sure.”

As much as the JIBC student volunteers assist the people they meet, the benefits are mutual. “They get some hands on experience and not only that, experience of working with such a diverse, interesting population down there that I think it prepares them for actual career work,” Ryan noted.

Having written his licencing exams, Ryan hopes to eventually work as a paramedic but plans to keep the society going. He appreciates the many positive connections he’s made both with his classmates and his JIBC instructors, who he often sees when they’re working ambulance shifts and he’s patrolling with Street Saviours.

“I think that’s going to stick with me most.”

For more information on paramedic courses and programs, visit JIBC Paramedic Academy.