When Jennifer Vanderschaeghe began volunteering at the Lethbridge HIV Connection (LHC) on Aug. 1, 1993, it was at a time when AIDS was the leading cause of death for North Americans aged 25-44.
Fast forward 20 years and she is now leading Central Alberta’s battle against HIV/AIDS as the executive director of the Central Alberta AIDS Network Society.
Although it has been a few years since her work on the frontlines and she now resides mostly behind the scenes, her fingerprints from the last 10 years at CAANS can be seen on a wide range of inspirational projects throughout the community.
“I went into the LHC wanting to volunteer somewhere interesting and provocative and at that time in Lethbridge the most provocative you could get was the agency talking about sexual health, HIV, and drugs,” she said. “If you’ve ever seen the movie Dallas Buyers Club then you’d know this was a time when HIV/AIDS medications, such as AZT were being tested and released.”
These new drug therapies being released such as AZT meant the industry of HIV/AIDS treatment was about to change, as the life expectancy and longevity of HIV positive people was to greatly increase.
“In that first year of me being involved in the HIV movement, I buried 12 friends,” she explained of her early days with the LHC. “We had two friends that died on the same day, so you’d have a funeral on Wednesday and one Thursday and you’d have a group of folks who’d gone to both, but now HIV positive people live so much longer.”
Vanderschaeghe explained how CAANS now has people in their caseload who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the 80s and thanks to treatment are now living to be quite a bit older. They are now facing issues such as heart disease from old age and other health issues not associated their previous diagnosis.
“Early on when I told people that I worked for an HIV organization they were scared and kind of freaked out,” she explained. “They would say things like, ‘Oh, that’s too bad’ because they would assume I was HIV positive or ‘Aren’t you scared you’re going to catch something?’
“But today people are a bit more understanding and open to talking about it and although there is still a stigma around the HIV movement it’s getting better.”
Vanderschaeghe’s journey carried on from the LHC to various places including the Provincial AIDS Organization, as well as Living Positive Edmonton where she was the organization’s first HIV negative staff member.
Her compassion for those living with HIV/AIDS is unwavering and unforgettable. For this caring and compassionate nature she gives credit to her parents who are both psychiatric nurses.
Her work over the years at various organizations has included supporting those living with HIV in ways such as connecting them with others facing the same issues, helping HIV positive people connect with infectious disease doctors in Calgary or Edmonton, preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS through handing out condoms and clean needles, educating those living with the virus, as well as educating the public on HIV/AIDS, and much more.
These days she stays busy writing proposals for funding for projects to help the community’s HIV movement, but said she is particularly proud of past projects such as Night Reach which puts a team of two workers into downtown Red Deer distributing information and harm reduction supplies such as needles, condoms, and crack stems to people on the streets as well as a joint project with the RCMP to team up with a mental health worker to help vulnerable people on the streets.
Her hope for the future of CAANS is to continue to integrate her work further into the community and to continue to enrich the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS in Central Alberta.