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"STD" 2005 Obituary


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STD o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.toronto_star 2005-01-10 published
She saw hope in every street kid
Karen POSITANO a passionate and stubborn advocate
Worked to start training programs, needle exchange
By Catherine DUNPHY, Obituary Writer
Perhaps this anecdote can best sum up the many parts of Karen POSITANO, a petite and driven dynamo, an original, as well as a world traveller, insomniac, wife, mother of three and champion of every street kid who came by Youthlink Inner City, the drop-in resource centre and outreach program where she worked for almost 16 years:
It was 1994 and POSITANO was in Amsterdam at a world A.I.D.S. conference. She had met up with Hélène LALONDE, her buddy since their teenaged days in Ottawa when they lived innocently but recklessly and knew everyone, including bikers and drug dealers. She and LALONDE, now a consultant often working for the Canadian International Development Agency in developing countries, were standing at a bus stop when a passerby shrieked: "Karen POSITANO!"
It was Gwendolyn, a stripper POSITANO knew from Toronto who was in Amsterdam working at a live sex show.
"Karen POSITANO?" echoed one of the other people at the stop.
Turns out this person was with the World Health Organization and had been seeking POSITANO to sign her up as a speaker at a Rio de Janeiro conference for street kids, and she'd been hard pressed to locate her, as POSITANO had spent much of the last two days marching on the street with prostitutes.
"Yeah, she left me at the hotel," said her youngest daughter, Jill ROCHON, with a laugh. She was 14 at the time. "I was safe there, she knew that."
POSITANO was well known internationally. She was invited to make presentations at another world A.I.D.S. conference in Vancouver as well as at various H.I.V. and A.I.D.S. prevention and hepatitis C gatherings throughout North America.
In Toronto she was a member of Councillor Olivia CHOW's children and youth committee.
What she was renowned for was her tenacity, her push and her passion. After her first marriage failed and she lost her bid to convince a court to change her children's surname to hers, she took the matter to the Supreme Court.
"When she decided to do something, you just got out of the way," said her second husband, Gerry ROCHON.
"She definitely had a stubborn streak," said her eldest child, Karyn, 31. It is why she and brother Cain, 30, have the surname POSITANO.
In the early '80s, POSITANO and ROCHON and the three kids moved to Ottawa from Vancouver where they had been living. There she worked full-time and went to school full-time, getting a degree in criminology plus her master of social work. She also organized and played in a women's baseball league, acted in university theatre, took dance classes and travelled to exotic destinations such as Thailand.
She began working with street youth at Youthlink Inner City as part of the job placement for her social work degree; she was so enthusiastic about the work that not only did she convince her family to move to Toronto, she also created her own full-time employment there.
"Inner City was the root of her work. It catered to youth no one else would, those with mental health problems, prostitutes, drug users," said Rebecca BASSEY, a friend and former employee.
POSITANO never let anything stand in the way of getting more programs or more program dollars for the youth she saw every day at her office. Her funding proposals were legendary -- succinct, persuasive and usually written a month before the deadline -- but her first work for Youthlink was the production of two very radical education videos for street youth.
STD Street Smarts and Street Wise Women came with a warning of "frank language and explicit imagery" because the penises in the videos were real.
"Some people might say her style was abrasive," said Liz GREAVES, Youthlink executive director, "but she shot straight from the hip."
In 1999, she blasted the Mayor's Task Force on Homelessness, of which GREAVES was a member, for ignoring the plight of homeless youth.
"She was absolutely right," GREAVES said. The task force subsequently commissioned a report.
Fearless and always on the cutting edge, POSITANO was an early advocate of Youthlink's work in harm reduction. The agency was the first in the city to run a needle exchange program.
In 1998, she was one of the organizers of a program for squeegee kids, a new headline-grabbing demographic that was unsettling if not scaring many people in the city. While police were cracking down on homeless people in public places and the provincial government was bringing in the Safe Streets Act, POSITANO was part of a group lobbying Toronto politicians for resources to help these youth. The result is a fully federally funded training program teaching computer skills called the Youth Skills Zone.
In 1995, POSITANO was promoted to supervisor, responsible for a staff of about nine at Youthlink Inner City's drop-in/resource and outreach program. She started the Sock Swap, gathering cast-offs from families and Friends to recycle to the street kids. Before the centre got its washer and dryer, she'd take all the dirty socks home to wash them. She also started a monthly supper club for street youth with hepatitis C.
An early proponent of the peer educator program, in which clients work 10 hours a week at the drop-in and do outreach with other street or addicted youth, she conceived and won funding for the advanced peer education program.
This is a year-long full-time staff position, "one of the most important positions we have," according to Inner City supervisor Diana WALKER. "I think Karen saw hope in everyone who walked through the door."
POSITANO raced through her life, taking each of her children on a coming-of-age trip to Europe, meeting up with LALONDE in Kenya, Brazil and Egypt, holidaying with BASSEY in Jamaica and with her husband in Morocco, and finding thrift stores wherever she went. She volunteered with Habitat for Humanity building houses in Fiji, Uganda and India, where she met Mother Teresa. Once a month, she spent her Saturday mornings working in the Big Sisters thrift shop at Lawrence Ave. W. and Avenue Rd. More than once she climbed the C.N. Tower stairs for the United Way.
For kicks, she was an extra in David Cronenberg's The Naked Lunch, stalked celebrities on the red carpet at all the Toronto Film Festivals, dragged family and Friends to rock concerts, and plundered furniture discarded in Forest Hill and Rosedale. She and ROCHON bought, renovated and sold nine houses together. She also loved organizing and decorating them.
"She packed a lot in," said ROCHON. "It was as if she almost knew she wouldn't have a long life."
She'd beaten cancer of the uterus 14 years earlier, so she was typically upbeat when she was diagnosed two years ago with breast cancer.
"She had the kind of personality that you just thought she would beat it," said LALONDE.
"She always said it was no big deal," added BASSEY.
And they believed her even when she suffered a heart attack a year ago that almost ended her life. POSITANO rallied enough to sometimes make it back to work and to her office with the window that looked out on to the kitchen and eating area of the drop-in centre.
"I used to update her, make her feel at home because she didn't know a lot of the clients now," said John LAFORME, a crack addict and regular at Youthlink for four years. POSITANO always encouraged him to get the help he needed and last month he left for a detox facility in Quebec. "I'm doing it for me and for Karen," he said. "I've been in drop-ins and agencies across Canada and Karen was one of the best drop-in workers ever. She took the time to get to know you."
Ten days before she died, at her home on the afternoon of October 1 at the age 52, POSITANO attended a Youthlink managers' meeting. A day or so later, she sent Liz GREAVES an email saying she was going to lick cancer. "There was such a fierceness to her," GREAVES said.
POSITANO wanted to live long enough to see her first grandchild, and she did. Karyn named her newborn daughter Kalina, Hawaiian for Karen.

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