AIS program takes learning to the main stage

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It’s a magical moment when care seems to perfectly intersect with patient interest to create a meaningful outcome for everyone. But, as health care workers know, moments like that aren’t magic but the product of dedicated individuals who know how to bring the right resources together to best serve their patients.  

RT Mich Dysart smiling and standing in front of a brick wall
Mitch Dysart, RT in the Blue Stream of IWK AIS

The youth and staff within the Blue Stream of Adolescence Intensive Services (AIS) got to experience this “magic” firsthand at a unique community outing in June 2022, organized by recreational therapist (RT), Mitch Dysart (he/him) with the help of Garry Dart (they/she/he), Pride Health coordinator, and AIS leadership. As a first of its kind for the program, staff and clients attended an all-ages drag event where they spent time with some of the biggest names in the Halifax drag scene. The fun-filled afternoon had meaningful outcomes for many attendees and focused on education and understanding within the 2SLGBTQ+ community.  

“I wanted to do programming that celebrated inclusivity and diversity. I’d noticed that many of our youth were members of social justice clubs within their school system. Many of them had interests in theatre, makeup, and mainstream TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. With all that, I was trying to be clever about ways to bring that into programming; one of the ways was an all-ages drag event.” 

“The feedback was amazing,” says Dysart, who organized the event. “A staff member told me that it was one of the best outings they’ve been on in the 30 years they’ve been here, and another suggested the queens come back to do training with our entire staff.” 

The afternoon event introduced the youth and staff to Drag performers Elle Noir (she/her), Zara Matrix (she/her), and Brooke Rivers (she/her). The queens performed individual and group dance numbers to age-appropriate songs and led a round-table discussion about gender identity and their identity journeys.  

“One of the most special parts of the day was hearing from Elle Noir, who’s a transwoman. She shared her whole story about gender dysphoria and gender-euphoria with the youth. It was very moving. She shared so much knowledge that I think everyone, including myself, learned something.”  

Drag queen dancing in community hall  Drag queen Elle Noir dancing in community hall waving a trans-flag hand fanThree drag queens perform group number in community hall

According to Dysart, many of the youth who attend AIS Blue are there due to internalizing factors and mental health challenges that make it difficult to participate in school. With these issues in mind, all the activities surrounding the drag event were completely optional for the youth, including attendance, participation in a discussion, and taking photos with the queens. An emphasis was placed on making sure nothing was forced or pressured. Dysart says that this made it even more special to see how the youth reacted to the event. 

“A couple of clients were extremely nervous and anxious about attending the program that week, but they showed up, attended the event, and even got their picture with the queens. One of the youths went up to the queen and said ‘I love your outfit’ which was a big moment. For them to go from being nervous about an event to then feel comfortable enough to share anything with the queens was a tremendous success.” 

“I think there is a misconception around drag queens being hypersexualized,” says Dysart. “But we wanted to use this as an opportunity to educate and to discuss topics like pronouns, the history of Pride, how to advocate and support friends, and family who might be struggling with sexuality or gender, and share support programs that are out there for the youth to take part in.”  

Three drag queens sitting infant of audience, talking
Drag queens (left-right) Brooke Rivers, Zara Matrix and Elle Noir lead a group discussion about gender identity, queer history, and community supports.

Youth and staff at AIS attend outings weekly that focus on youth gaining a skill, developing a new interest, building on a current one, or learning some new. What separates recreation from recreation therapy is that everything is goal driven. The queens who took part volunteered their time for this event and found it equally as rewarding of an experience.  

“Growing up, I never had these opportunities to be exposed to queer culture,” says drag queen Brooke Rivers. “Events like these show the real person behind all the makeup. See the real struggles and things we live with that are similar to everyone else in the room, no matter how fabulous or sparkly people may think we are.” 

To say ‘thank you’, one youth participant made friendship bracelets for each queen of their respective pride flag. Dysart says that the queens keep in contact with him, sending photos of themselves wearing their bracelet as a reminder of how meaningful the AIS drag event was.  

Dysart hopes that outings of this nature can continue to happen and possibly expand to explore other topics such as reconciliation. “I’m just trying to think outside the box on what ways we can meet the clients where they are at and be creative trying to engage them in new ways.”