BY TERRY BELL, THE PROVINCE
Christine Nesbitt came to Vancouver 28 months ago and left town with a 2010 Olympic speedskating gold medal hanging around her neck.
On Wednesday Nesbitt is returning to Vancouver with some of her Calgary-based teammates for a close-up look at the city’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.
The visit is part of a program run by the Odd Squad Production Society, a non-profit group established in 1997 by a group of retired and current Vancouver police officers. Its goal is to “design programs that honour and motivate youth, encourage them to set positive goals, lay their own path and stay On Track by keeping drug-free for a long and healthy life.”
For several years Odd Squad has been offering the program to a number of junior hockey teams but this will be the first involvement by Olympic athletes. Chris Graham, a founding member and Director of Peer-to-Peer programs, is ecstatic.
“One of the things that’s been on our mind for a long time is that there’s a lot of girls involved in gang activity and drug trafficking and poor relationships,” Graham, a retired Vancouver policeman, said Tuesday. “We’re not able to deal with that. We’ve been working toward that end, getting girl role models into our program.
“This just kind of fell in our lap.”
Derek Robinson, a sports psychologist who works with the national men’s alpine team and the national speedskating team, came up with the idea of bringing the Olympians to the Downtown Eastside. He has worked with the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels the past two seasons and saw the positive effect that team’s visits have had on its players.
“Derek was all over it and he suggested bringing in some Olympic athletes,” said Graham. “He mentioned some women and I was like wow, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
Three women, Nesbitt, six-time Olympic medallist Cindy Klassen and Brittany Schussler, and two men, speedskater Jamie Gregg and alpine skier Jan Hudec, are part of this program. Fifteen Calgary businessmen are also coming.
They’ll have a classroom session before taking a walk around the neighbourhood. They’ll meet people who live in the area and hear their stories.
They’ll also be presented with data about gang activity and drug use.
“We really value this opportunity,” said Robinson,
“Every Olympian I asked said right away that they’d do it. They seemed to connect right away with how powerful this experience might be.
“These athletes are asked quite a bit to promote healthy living and pursuing sport. I think this is just something they immediately connected with. It’s something they saw as important and wanted to do.”
Graham hopes the five Olympians will use the information they obtain here in any future talks they might give to students. Odd Squad’s target group is kids grades six through nine.
”It’s essentially a training course,” Graham said.” We’re going to train the athletes to deal with issues that affect the community, primarily drugs and gangs, so they have the confidence to go out on their own and relate the experiences they got from us here in Vancouver.”
The Calgary group will stay in Vancouver and attend the 2012 Odd Squad Gala Fundraiser Thursday night at the Vancouver Convention Centre.