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Aire Ouverte: finding new ways to reach rural youth in need

“We are looking outside the box,” says Gina Donato, a human relations agent with Aire Ouvert. The new service, promoted by the Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux de la Montérégie-Ouest (CISSSMO), aims to help area youth between the ages of 12 and 25 cope with challenging issues in their lives.

The service launched last year with offices opening first in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, and then in Huntingdon at the Carrefour Jeunesse Emploi. Donato explains that from the beginning, they have been looking for new and innovative ways to connect with the local population, even turning to an advisory committee made up of area youth for advice.

During a recent brainstorming session with three high-school-aged students from École Arthur-Pigeon in Huntingdon, the subjects discussed included how to appropriately target younger audiences on social media while staying on trend, and how to increase their presence at both local high schools without overstaying their welcome. The goal is to reach out and connect with as many young people as possible without turning them off to the very important services being offered.

“We want the population to know that we are here, and that we are here for them,” says Donato, who admits recruitment for the advisory committee has been slow. She says the number of individuals approaching them for services has been dwindling. “The goal of Aire Ouverte is to be accessible, and we are having difficulties in Huntingdon, so imagine how difficult it is for youth outside the town,” she says, noting the team is adapting to the realities of rural isolation and the lack of transportation. “They are not coming to us, so we are having to go to them,” Donato says.

The CISSSMO is aware of the additional challenges imposed by the territory. “Since the Haut-Saint-Laurent region is quite vast, it is true that our workers have to travel more throughout the territory to reach the youth population,” says Véronique Blais, a communications advisor with the CISSSMO. She says the results from the first year speak to the necessity of reaching out to young people in new or alternative ways. To date, nearly 250 youth have benefited from the services offered by Aire Ouverte, where approximately 25 per cent of those helped were from the Haut-Saint-Laurent. Over 1000 interventions have been carried out in the Montérégie-Ouest (Valleyfield and Huntingdon), and more than 100 canvassing activities have taken place, where 40 per cent of those were in the Haut-Saint-Laurent.

Aire Ouverte’s range of services is free and confidential. “We really have an inventory of specialists,” Donato says, referring to the team of bilingual social workers and dedicated nurses. The team also includes a sexologist, and a nurse practitioner. Youth can drop-in at the Huntingdon office on Mondays from 2 to 6 p.m. and Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m. It is also possible to make an appointment by phone or text at 1-888-440-AIRE (2473). “Someone will always respond,” guarantees Donato.

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