A group of former prostitutes in Winnipeg are taking a college course specifically designed to train them to help those still working the streets to leave the business.

The one-year "child and youth care worker training program for experiential persons" is being run at Red River College in Winnipeg in conjunction with Ndinawe, a youth program in the city's North End neighbourhood.

Ndinawe director Sonia Prevost-Derbecker says the course, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, will provide agencies with workers who have "been there."

"For years we have known that young girls who are working in the sex trade often need to work with and respond best with women who have also had similar experiences," she said.

"It's a very difficult trade to leave, and we know the outcomes are always best when we have experiential people empathizing and supporting."

Ten former prostitutes are enrolled in the one-year pilot project, including Darlene Spence.

Spence says she was 13 when she first started working on the streets. The next nine years was a blur of dates, drugs and drink. Spence got pregnant at 15, and had a baby girl.

Eventually, she met a man who became firsta regular customer, then her fiancé.

"He's my knight in shining armour. If it wasn't for him, I'd probably still be where I was," she said.

Instead, Spence, now 21,isenrolled in the Ndinawe program, learning things like non-violent crisis intervention and child development. By this time next year, she hopes tobe workingwith young girls in a group home.

"I've been to hell and back so many times. A lot of youth are going through things I went through. I want tohelp them realize you can make yourself better — look at me," she said.

Academically sound

Joan Kunderman, chair of community services at Red River College, says the women in the coursewill receiveextra help, such as addictions counselling. But they're not getting a free ride, she emphasized.

"A very high priority for us is that any training we do in the community will be academically sound and have the same academic rigour ason campus," Kunderman said.

Spence and some of the other students are regularly receiving A grades, something that surprises even Spence herself.

"A lot of people thought I wouldn't make it, so I want to prove myself and others wrong, that you know what?I'm better than what you think I am," she said.

"Everybody resents you because of what you did, and they think you're always going to be like that. That's what hurts the most."

When they finish the one-year program, students may choose to continue a two-year training program at Red River,or find work in an agency or group home.

The pilot projectwill cost just over $500,000, with about half the money coming from the province through the Ministry of Education and social assistance support toits participants.

During a recent public inquest, experts estimated that 400 children and youth are sexually exploited on the streets of Winnipeg each year.