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GHC_logo_3For 18 years, Jeff Patterson, owner of JP Hair Designs on Madison’s west side, has been making African-American men in Madison look good. Now they can also feel good when they leave his shop.

Since last October, JP Hair Design has been home to the Men’s Health and Education Center(MHEC). If a customer has a concern, Patterson and his staff lead customers to the center.

“Anything I can do to help men feel better is a good thing,” Patterson tells Madison365.

The MHEC is the brainchild of Aaron Perry, the founder and CEO of Rebalanced Life Wellness Association and the first African American diabetic Ironman triathlete. He started the non-profit in 2007 to improve the health status of black men.

“All my research over the past seven years to improve the health outcomes for men of color has consistently led me back to the barbershop. If we want to make an impact on men’s lives, we have to go to the barbershop,” Perry says.

JPs serves 600 men a week, and since October, 215 of those men have walked through the doors of the MHEC, located inside the bustling barbershop. It’s filled with literature about the most critical health issues facing black men such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Plus, there are two computers linked to Harvard Medical and Mayo Clinic websites to research health issues not listed in the center.

The center is funded by a 3-year grant from SSM Health.

Spencer Johnson cuts a customer’s hair and directs people to the health center, seen in the background.
Spencer Johnson cuts a customer’s hair and directs people to the health center, seen in the background.

On a busy Saturday at the barbershop, Perry took Marktice Moore’s blood pressure.

“I learned that it’s a little high and that I should keep an eye on it,” Moore says.
“Maybe get away from the kids more,” he adds, chuckling.

Perry, 53, isn’t a doctor, but living 24 years with diabetes, he has become a health advocate who can show men like Moore the range of blood pressures on the computer’s medical websites, what their numbers mean, and what action they can take next.

Perry’s own experiences have shaped his passion for health. At age 29, he was diagnosed with diabetes and has managed the disease with diet, exercise and medication. In 2005, he completed his first Ironman Triathlete competition. This prompted him to put up a website that talked about his experience of being diabetic and training for the Ironman. This led to many e-mails from people all over the world with diabetes that wanted to know how he did it. Perry saw an opportunity to help others and channeled this passion into a non-profit two years later.

“We do encourage men to see their primary physicians, but you cannot underestimate the fact that many men don’t trust the medical profession,” Perry says.

Aaron Perry, the founder and CEO of Rebalanced Life Wellness Association, sits at his desk at the Men’s Health and Education Center located at JP Hair Design, 584 Grand Canyon Drive.
Aaron Perry, the founder and CEO of Rebalanced Life Wellness Association, sits at his desk at the Men’s Health and Education Center located at JP Hair Design, 584 Grand Canyon Drive.

“When I talk to the men, I understand it. While those experiences didn’t stop me from going to my doctor, that is not the case for many,” Perry continues. “Some men who visit the center share stories of feeling unwelcome when they come to doctor appointments and even feeling frustration with setting up appointments. I hear that a lot. I also hear them talk about their mothers’ or their grandmothers’ experiences, so there’s a whole cultural aspect that dates all the way back to the Tuskegee experiment.”

The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male was a notorious clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the United States government. According to the Tuskegee University web site, the study was to “record the natural history of syphilis in blacks” under the guise of receiving free health care. Researchers told the men participating in the study that they were to be treated for “bad blood.”

“We’re here in the barbershop because men trust their barbers and are more likely to listen to information given to them here,” Perry says. “We just completed a survey of the center’s users and about 57 percent said that they’d prefer meeting with their primary physicians inside the barbershop.”

Aaron Perry
Aaron Perry

Ideally, that’s what Perry would like to do.

“We’re in phase one. Next, we want to offer health lectures on mental health, colon and prostate cancer awareness and education plus offer sports physicals, diabetes and vision screenings, and virtual visits by local doctors. We’re looking at bringing in nursing students from Edgewood and med students from the UW-Madison in the near future,” he says. “We’re just scratching the surface of what we can do here. In fact, we’ve already outgrown our space.”

This past year, Perry also partnered with Sennett Middle School to improve attendance, behavior and academics. Last year they brought over 13 boys and next year he’d like to expand to three more schools. If the boys improve in these areas, they get a free haircut and get to spend time in the health center.

“We plan to bring them here on Tuesdays when we get a lot of professional men here,” Perry says. “They get mentoring, a haircut and health information.”

“JP helps them look good. I help them feel good. Let’s continue this,” he adds.

The Men’s Health and Education Center is located at JP Hair Design, 584 Grand Canyon Drive. It’s open to anyone whether you are getting a haircut or not. Hours are 7:30 a.m.-noon and 1:30-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Written by Diane Schwartz

Diane Schwartz

Diane Schwartz is a writer, educator, activist and the founder of Outdoors 123, an organization dedicated to creating community through the outdoors.

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