Looking down at his phone, a small, subtle smile begins to creep across Brian Whelan’s face. For just a moment, he is lost in memory.
Staring back at him is a grainy photo of his daughter standing next to his dear friend, Cammy LaFleur — both smiling brightly. The photo is one of Brian’s most cherished reminders of his friend.
“She was a gem drop from heaven,” he says. “If it wasn’t for her I would be dead or doing some serious time in a penitentiary.”
It has been 18 years since Cammy passed away from cystic fibrosis (July 24, 2002), but her legacy has carried on, not just in the North Okanagan but across the country. Her name is associated with compassion and caring for those who would be considered society’s most vulnerable and neglected citizens.
Cammy not only helped implement the concept of harm reduction to the community in the late ’90s, but she was also one of the first people in the Okanagan to openly promote it as an effective means to control the spread of blood-borne pathogens like HIV and hepatitis C.
Her work has saved thousands upon thousands of lives, including Brian’s.
“When I first met Cammy, I was on the ground in front of Savoy’s saw shop, probably dying of a heroin overdose,” he recalled. “She drove by me and saw my daughter standing there beside me and stopped. She saved my life.
“She cared for me so much that she cried for me when she told me I had hepatitis C. At first, she said she was scared to tell me.”
“The clinic was the safest spot in the city for an addict,” explained Brian. “It was just open. Open to anything, everything. They would help you with whatever they could, to the best of their ability – each and every time. Especially Cammy.”
At the back of a little coffee shop in downtown Vernon sit Jan Shumay and Dean Francks. Jan and Dean worked with Cammy during the late ’90s up until her passing in 2002.
The pair share a few laughs as they reminisce about their friend and colleague.
“She would never do anything she didn’t want to do. She’d always say, ‘don’t do what you don’t want to do, Jan. Life is short.’ ”
Jan was the executive director of North Okanagan Youth and Family Services (NOYFSS); Dean worked with at-risk youth; and Cammy ran the outreach clinic.
“The whole team grew our outreach back then,” explained Dean, who has since taken over as the executive director of NOYFSS from Jan.
Harm reduction in the ’90s was primarily condoms and needle exchange, and it wasn’t openly discussed in public.
When Cammy arrived in Vernon, she quickly changed that model.
“The original model, we just went out and walk around and handed out harm-reduction supplies,” Jan laughs. “Then we hired Cammy as a nurse, and when she came on the scene she said, ‘Well no, you have to have a place for them to come to where they feel safe, and then we can start to talk to them about what’s going on for them.’ ”
Cammy’s vision was a physical space where people could go to get basic supplies, but also a place that provided staff with the opportunity to connect with people and develop relationships.
“It brought people into space and then you could really get to know their story. And then from there you could really do some real work and help them through whatever they were going through,” says Dean.
In the early days, the clinic was not funded. It was largely staff who kept the donations coming in allowing for the clinic work to continue, led by Cammy.
“She would go to churches and they would call her an angel,” Jan says with a laugh. “Cammy said, ‘These are people. These are our family members that are dying and we need to help them.’ ”
During a public ceremony in memory of Cammy held at Polson Park, Brian’s daughter stood and spoke, saying she wished Cammy was her mother.
Shortly after her passing, the clinic was officially named The Cammy LaFleur Outreach Program.
In 2019, the Cammy LaFleur Outreach Program left NOYFSS and became part of the continuum of services offered by Turning Points Collaborative Society. Today, Alison Houweling runs the program as a harm reduction educator and counsellor.
“For Cammy to make the inroads she did at a time when harm reduction work was absolutely unacceptable, she had to be a very brave, strong and fully compassionate woman. I can only hope my work is oriented by such a strong moral compass and relentlessness as hers was.”
Alongside Alison is Brian.
Brian now works part-time with the Cammy LaFleur Outreach Program, seeing his younger self in the faces he helps.
Until his final breath, he vows to protect the clinic and Cammy’s legacy.
“I just kept seeing her. Every day I think about her. I wanted to make her proud of me. Somehow, I think she is.
“It feels good. And I let it feel good. I think she is smiling down.”
Josh Winquist is the director of public relations at Vernon’s Turning Points Collaborative Society.