Andre Turner, founder Boys Coming of Age, wants to help a unique group of young males find their way to a healthy masculine identity.
At 16, Andre Turner’s young world was turned upside down by a thyroid cancer diagnosis. Now a 26-year cancer survivor, Turner developed a program for teenage boys facing a different chronic illness, HIV. The goal: to help them take responsibility for their health and their lives.
The program, Boys Coming of Age, works with African-American males age 13 to 17 who were perinatally infected with HIV – infected by their mothers during pregnancy, birth, or early infancy – and uses a Rites of Passage process, which includes a variety of activities and rituals to help men of all ages develop a healthy masculine identity.
Turner will be working with clients of the Johns Hopkins University Pediatric & Adolescent HIV/AIDS Intensive Primary Care (IPC) Clinic, in Baltimore City.
Advances in HIV/AIDS treatment have resulted in a less than one percent likelihood that a mother infected with HIV will transmit the virus to her child if the infection is diagnosed before or during pregnancy, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), but racial disparities persist.
The CDC reports that nationally, as of the end of 2009, of the 9,522 people under the age of 13 who were perinatally infected with HIV, 63 percent of them were Black. At the Hopkins IPC clinic, 89 percent of their clients are African-American, reflecting the demographic breakdown of HIV infected persons in Baltimore City, where 85 percent of those who are infected are African-American, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Turner worked as an HIV/AIDS educator for the Baltimore County Health Department from 2005-2013. More importantly, he knows from his own experience with cancer what it is like to wrestle with a diagnosis that sounds like a death sentence when one’s identity is still developing. He understands declaring normalcy by rebelling against one’s treatment regimen, and, most importantly, what it is to navigate a chronic illness that many people do not understand and yet allow to define you as a person.
“ look at cancer – at least in my experience – the way people look at the people that have HIV,” said Turner. “Like something’s wrong, he has something, he’s contagious, he has the cooties.”
This experience of managing a chronic illness and the stigma that can often accompany it placed Turner in a unique position to appreciate the challenges, both to their health and personal development, that young boys born with HIV face. By engaging the young males in a Rites of Passage process, Turner seeks to instill the lesson that being an adult means taking responsibility for all aspects of your life and behavior, especially your health.
“Men are less likely to put themselves in front of a healthcare professional, and health is the main thing that we suffer from – poor health,” explained Turner. “Rites of Passage that by beginning to develop healthy masculine expression at an early age.”
Boys Coming of Age plans to achieve this healthy expression through a series of exercises and activities designed to teach life skills such as healthy emotional expression, teamwork, and responsibility to and for oneself as well as to the broader collectives in which they may operate – whether family, team, or society as a whole. Among the activities the boys will partake in are martial arts, group drilling, African drumming, camping, and service projects.
Turner, who at 30 went through a Rites of Passage program with the Egbe Akokunrin (Society of Brave Men), an offshoot of the Baltimore Harambee Kollective, one of the nation’s pioneer Rites of Passage programs for youth, credits the program for making him into the person he is today. Elder Ademola Ekulona, a founding member of the Harambee Kollective, explained that Rites of Passage, based on African traditions, stresses the importance of building character in young people. “Your character is what must be developed according to the African cultural framework,” said Ekulona. Can you develop your character by the evidence of the things you do? How do you get along in the world? Are you the source of problems or are you the source of solutions?”
Ekulona sees Turner’s project as an important practical application of Rites of Passage and says the key to its success will lie in its ability to teach the boys to be responsible for the possible effects of HIV on theirs and the health of others.
Turner is raising funds to help with the costs of various trips and activities Boys Coming of Age will host. He will be running two half-marathons in order to collect donations and raise funds. Anyone interested in making a donation can do so via the following link: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=6EX2P76UN5ATU. The donations are processed by Fusion Partnerships Inc., and are tax-deductible charitable contributions