Sara Young started with PHSA in 2017 when she landed her dream job as manager of the harm reduction program at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).
The harm reduction program aims to minimize harms related to substance use by providing life-saving tools and services that reduce barriers to accessing health care. Her first project was to scale up the Take Home Naloxone program by getting lifesaving naloxone kits into community pharmacies. Today, there are more than 2,000 sites distributing naloxone throughout the province including more than 800 pharmacies.
For Sara, who is a 2022 PHSA+ Award recipient, it was an opportunity for her to shape a health care program by putting people first.
“We always work to ensure we are fully engaging people who use substances,” she said. “You can’t make services effective unless you are meaningfully engaging from start to finish, from the planning to the implementation of projects.”
The desire to embrace the idea of ‘nothing about us, without us’ stems from her own background. In her youth, she was street involved, experienced homelessness and spent time in the foster care system.
“That really gave me insight and empathy to the issues that people who are unhoused face. It drove me to want to make health care services available in a way that ensures dignity, respect and right to self-determination.” – Sara Young
When Sara looks back on the past five years with BCCDC, she says her most impactful experience was creating a position for and hiring a person with lived and living experience of substance use at BCCDC. While people with lived experience bring tremendous experience and knowledge, there are barriers to navigate within the health care system.
“Sometimes when people with lived experience begin working in the health care system, they face stigma and discrimination and negative assumptions from their colleagues,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do to transform our system and make it more welcoming and inclusive.”
It’s this passion for health equity and advocacy that led her colleagues to nominate her.
“Sara always takes a people-centered approach and strives to put people with lived and living experience at the heart of decision making,” says Blake Stitilis, operations coordinator with the harm reduction program.
“She is a humble champion for change and has positively impacted all who work with her.” – Blake Stitilis
Six years into the public health emergency, Sara acknowledges the challenges and burden of the work.
“We have made significant progress in the areas of overdose prevention and response, but there is still so much work to do to save lives,” she says.
Sara's team credits her leadership for helping them stay committed.
“Sara is highly respected for her warm and compassionate leadership style and for her ability to build and strengthen relationships,” says Sammy Iammarino, senior practice lead for harm reduction and the Unregulated Drug Poisoning Crisis Response.
“She has worked tirelessly through the ongoing emergency and remained a calm and steady influence.” – Sammy Iammarino
In turn, Sara says she is proud of her team’s resilience to remain nimble and responsive and to continue to find solutions to a wicked problem.
Recently, that work has turned to focus on finding opportunities to enhance access to safer supply for people who use substances so they can access alternatives to the unregulated drug supply that is leading to overdoses and overdose deaths.
“Separating people from the toxic drug supply and providing safer alternatives will be the solution to the emergency," says Sara.
Outside of work, Sara loves being in nature and hiking to counter the toll of the emergency response. This summer, she hiked the West Coast Trail which provided some much needed rest and her feel rejuvenated.
Sara recently started a new role with Health Emergency Management BC (HEMBC) where she will take her experience of responding to emergencies to support the deployment of health assets in emergency situations as provincial operations manager.
“We’re working to ensure that people who are most marginalized have the supports they need during emergencies because we know they will be most impacted.”
The PHSA+ Awards are part of an internal recognition program that celebrates teams and individuals who bring our PHSA values to life in the workplace. They go above and beyond to serve patients and families across B.C. Read about the other PHSA+ award recipients for 2022.