At 17 years old, Andre Turner was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“I was just beginning to develop my identity, my self-concept,” Turner says. “I get this earth-shattering news and I just knew I was going to die.”
Miraculously, Turner pulled through and has been cancer-free for 26 years. But he remembers keenly what that experience was like, being young, unsure of himself and uncertain of his future—and what that tumult meant for his recovery process. That’s why today, Turner has turned his time and attention to young black males with a different life-threatening diagnosis: HIV.
Working with the Johns Hopkins University Pediatric & Adolescent HIV/AIDS Intensive Primary Care Clinic, Turner will work with up to 20 boys between the ages of 13 and 17 who are HIV-positive to help them take their diagnoses, their health care and their futures as men more seriously.
The “Boys Coming of Age” program will provide development and manhood training for the young men—training that is much needed, particularly for this group, says Turner, who has been a teacher in Virginia and Baltimore.
“For many of these patients, medical needs have superseded social, educational and development goals for much of their childhood and adolescence,” he says. “As they reach young adulthood, they’re expected to take on adult responsibilities, but too many lack the skills to do so.”
When Turner was a teenager, he remembers rebelling against taking his medication, saving money or avoiding risky activities.
“I did not see a future,” he says. “And often, when we’re teens, we’re always told what to do. I felt like I was dominated by that kind of thing. So I started to rebel.”
Turner sees similar behaviors in the young men being treated at the Johns Hopkins HIV/AIDS clinic. Many of them fail to take their medications and struggle with emotional challenges. Some of them experiment with drugs, alcohol, gang involvement and promiscuity. Without guidance, support and skills training, the boys are headed toward unhealthy, unproductive futures.
“Transitioning into manhood from adolescence is neither automatic nor easy,” Turner says. “There are all kinds of bad information and myths about manhood. I am trying to help them navigate into manhood in a healthy way.”
The program consists of several steps. The first requires the boys to separate—albeit symbolically—from their families, sever ties with old routines and habits and accept responsibility for themselves.
Next, the boys will go through a “Rite of Transition,” participating in such team-building activities as martial arts, drumming or drill teams. Turner and other mentors will help the young men successfully complete tasks, master skills, and then teach other boys what they’ve learned.
“Completion is powerful,” Turner says. “Having consecutively completed tasks helps them to develop trust in themselves.”
The youth also will participate in bonding sessions and camp retreats and complete mandatory service projects—teaching them to move from self-centeredness to community-focused thinking.
At the program’s end, the youth will be incorporated back into the community.
“When they come back, they will have learned something about themselves and their gifts. They’ll learn to be the authors, the architects and the artists when it comes to defining their own futures,” Turner says. “And when they come back to the community, they will have something to offer.”