She’s intelligent, so intelligent that it gets in her way from time to time. Dana is 16, in Grade 10, and trying to ward off teenage boredom and create some real stability in her life by following healthy pursuits. That intelligence combined with a need for stimulation is what makes her Chairwoman of the NasKarz Bored.
“I was a street kid, basically,” she says. “I was into drugs and hung out in North Van a lot.”
Dana had run away from home and the Downtown East side, and she wasn’t just into drugs like marijuana, magic mushrooms, ecstasy, cocaine, methamphetamine, and acid, she also sold them to support her habits. That was her way to survive on the street without involvement in the sex trade. You see the ‘whew’ run across her face as she talks about that.
“I’ve done them all (drugs),” she says, “because I was bored and unhappy. I hated Ray-Cam. I lived right next to Ray-Cam and nobody talked to me. I didn’t want to be there because I got beat up at school and had no one to talk to. I didn’t get along with anybody. I had no friends so I hung out in North Van a lot.”
Drug use and drug dealing helped Dana gain popularity and friends and money, but she says it wasn’t what she wanted because it meant she had to watch her back anywhere she went because she was a dealer, and they would take it off you. She couldn’t stop them.
Ray-Cam’s chief youth worker, Alex Vasiljević, doesn’t seem to mind Dana’s knock on his community centre; he doesn’t get defensive, he just nods, smiles and says “kids in the Downtown East side have a variety of issues generally and with each other. Navigating through all of that can be hard and is especially hard on newcomers.
“It can be hard to fit in and you have to be a tough kid to make that initial contact,” he says. “Dana is gentle and loving in her core, and she doesn’t have an obvious edge to cut through that stuff easily.”
That’s where the story of Dana gets really interesting because the girl is full of galloping contractions personified. And, she’s got a few challenges to manage.
In Grade 8, Dana was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, “the best kind” with mood swings instead of delusions.
She’s street smart but is also polite and respectful. She is a rocket ship of energy, and a miles-a-minute talker but has the patience to work with an autistic kid. She’s mistrusting of authority but has leadership qualities of her own along with a no-nonsense sense of right and wrong.
She’s too “shy” (right now) to take up an offer to read poetry she’s written on Vancouver Youth Radio but is also open and candid.
“The thing about kids like Dana,” Vasiljević says, “is that when they’ve seen a lot of dysfunction, poverty, and pain and gone through a lot of it themselves they can become a lot less judgmental than most people. They can be harder on themselves than they are on others. And, because they’re already hurting, they can be hurt more easily than kids with regular backgrounds.”
“Kids like Dana’s moral compasses are more elastic. They’re more accepting of others faults, weaknesses or deficiencies, and sometimes they see the difference between right and wrong much more clearly than the rest of us do. They understand desperation and survival instincts and how that manifests in unhealthy behavior. A lot of them develop an astonishing range and depth of compassion because of that. Dana has all of that and then some.”
Dana doesn’t have a regular history but she does have some healthy passions. Kids and working with them is her primary dedication. But I’m getting ahead of her story.
What changed Dana’s life on streets and her routine of drug abuse was a boy named Gordon who, though a few years older than she, had never done drugs in his life. The two met when they were both presenters for NasKarz at British Columbia’s Crime Prevention Symposium in 2006.
“I had great pink hair and he was this quiet Native guy who didn’t do drugs and was going into the army,” she says. “We passed notes under the table for three days.”
Then they went to a party together where he told her that drugs aren’t healthy.
They began dating and he tried Ecstasy with Dana to build credibility with her, so he could tell her that he didn’t like it and never wanted her to do it again.
“I stopped selling, ditched North Van and ditched all of those friends,” Dana says. “My focus and main priority was him. I wanted to make his life the best it could be. I did it for him.”
Dana’s been in and out of school since Grade 8; she’s been in and out of NasKarz too, and it wasn’t easy getting her to enroll.
“I went down to Ray-Cam just to be on the computer and either Alex or Tom invited me to NasKarz. I can’t remember.” Dana says. “I was like ‘No, that sucks. It’s bonk. It’s hurt.’”
Vasiljević wanted Dana and Gordon as peers in the NasKarz program because neither had stolen cars.
“As it turns out Dana did have experience with police,” Vasiljević laughs. “I found out later that she had stolen a car so she’s in between peer and targeted.”
And like most kids in the Downtown East side and in the NasKarz program, she isn’t too confident around cops even today.
“My fear comes from when I stole that car, fell out of the car, broke my ankle, and the cops put me in the dog’s part of the car.”
When asked why a cop such as Tim, who knows he’d be a likely target of criticism and mistrust, would put himself in a position with youth at NasKarz who have been street-involved, she doesn’t hesitate when she says:
“He’s a strong guy and he wants to help. I know he wants to help, and he’s not going to be freaking out at us and arresting us. But he has to be chill and then kids will be chill back.”
Dana wants to help too and she is.
Just recently Dana was very helpful with another 12-year-old kid that was going berserk, and the natural youth worker came out of her. A lot of kids would have been afraid of being called a rat, but she spoke when she needed to speak.
“Dana has good judgment and makes good decisions. The bottom line is that she knows the difference between right and wrong.”
She’s also been a Day Camp Leader for Ray-Cam the past two years.
“I like English, Science, Social Studies, and some History,” Dana says. “But I love working with kids. Kids are my favorite subject if it was a subject in school.”
“With all of my partying I can tell the kids what not to do because I did it. ‘You’re trying to smoke pot, want to know what it feels like? It’s boring.’”
“I tell them E (ecstasy) is pure meth. I know because I dealt drugs. I tell them what I did, and they start talking to me, and that way I can connect with the kid and they can connect with me. If I can stop one kid from doing meth tomorrow that would make my day. I don’t want them to go through what I did. I’ve have enough of that.”
That’s what she’s doing for others. But what, exactly, does the NasKarz program itself do?
“It helps you with everything. They help you with detox, food, clothes, dinner, parents, everything. I come in for instance and have no dinner for the week and they’ll buy me a box of food to keep at Ray-Cam. They will give you little loans for personal emergencies.”
“NasKarz is something to do. It keeps kids off the streets for a few hours a day, even if it’s only two hours. That’s a good sign compared to what I used to do.”
“We like to see Dana and Gordon as much as possible because when they’re there things get done and it’s really pleasant,” Vasiljević says.
“Dana is studying for her learners permit too,” he beams.
“The life I live now is so much more dull than the life I used to live, but I like it,” Dana says. “I don’t have to worry about where to sleep, where to do my laundry, and don’t have to watch my back.”
Today dull is okay, and though being bored might tempt some kids into drug abuse it can also tempt them into healthier, more productive activities that can later be turned into jobs. That’s what Dana stands for, and that’s why she is Chairwoman of the NasKarz Bored.