From War Zone to Brotherhood:
How Sheltering Arms’ Sexual Reproductive Workshops
transform the landscape.
Children and adults who find refuge under the Sheltering Arms umbrella have experienced daunting obstacles on the road to well-being. But if you’re like Jerome*—a youth attending sexual health and reproduction education programs at a Sheltering Arms Youth Center—you’ve faced particularly risky, even life-threatening, odds.
You've gone to school in a country where only 57 percent of students receive education reducing an alphabet soup of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like syphilis, Chlamydia, HPV, herpes and more. One teen is diagnosed with HIV every hour of every single day. If you identify as a member of the GLBTQ community like Jerome, you have the dubious distinction of being in a group targeted for more hate crimes than any other. Those are the national numbers.
Closer to home in Jerome’s Greater New York, one in two people under 25 has an STI. In Far Rockaway—half-jokingly called “a war zone in the HIV/STI battle”—teenage girls are less likely to get HPV screenings than their peers in New York City.
“It’s also not cool to disclose HIV status,” reflects Morine Bowen-Avery—Director of Sheltering Arms’ Health and Prevention Programs (right).
Bowen-Avery was introduced to HIV-related needs back in seminary, “at a time when churches were judgmental,” but she’s dismayed by lack of awareness that still puts young people at risk today. “A lot of them think ‘this can’t happen to me if I’m not gay.’ Gay youth are thinking, ‘it won’t happen to me,’ because they haven’t seen their friends die.” She pauses. Game-changing medications notwithstanding, “it’s always hard to lose a client.”
Sheltering Arms Youth Centers have robust partnerships throughout Jamaica and Rockaway (for example, Northwell Hospital’s Adolescent HIV Unit and the AIDS Center of Queens County—Queens’ largest provider of HIV services). Yet Bowen-Avery acknowledges “some people won’t enter the building [where her office is located] just to avoid being associated with HIV.” Indeed, emigrants using Sheltering Arms’ other HIV- and STI-related services may not disclose, because doing so in their countries of origin was treacherous.
Articulate and deeply courteous (you’re “Miss” or “Mister” until you invite him to be less formal), Jerome opens conversations with, “It’s an honor to speak” and closes with, “Have a nice day.” He excels at complex, strategically dense card games. Having overcome years of stigma and isolation, it’s no coincidence that his favorite card game is called “Magic”.
Jerome was an infant when his dad died, scattering the family. He’s still not sure how many siblings he has (“I believe two brothers and two sisters, but I only have a relationship with one”). Moving a lot, he was always “one of only three black kids at school; sort of the lonesome black kid.” His identification as pan-sexual created challenges all too familiar to black and Latino boys identifying as GBTQ.
“Everybody thinks homosexuality comes in a happy rainbow shade They’re wrong. There are a lot of people who say, ‘Ooooh, homosexual! Gotta run! I can’t be your friend.’ A label is hard to get rid of.” True; when Sheltering Arms helped another youth move to Harlem to escape deep feelings of persecution, his relief was palpable. “You have a place for me here,” he uttered, when he arrived.
At first, Jerome saw the Center as just “a place to stay out of trouble. You could go on the computers and hang out.” But his first program (on sexual health and wellness) was eye-opening. No one judged. No one hurt anyone else. He didn’t tell his mom about the groups, in the beginning.
These days, Young Men 2 Young Men is his favorite group, headed by Outreach Coordinator, Tyrone Thompson. Thompson tells of his own HIV diagnosis to break the ice, and Jerome appreciates that forthrightness; “it gives you a real platform for sharing.” Participants identify as gay, bi-sexual, pan-sexual and straight. That’s somewhat remarkable, given the group’s locale in “the most homophobic place in the city,” comments Amy Wilkerson, Sheltering Arms’ Director of Youth Services.
He clears his throat, looking down. But then he pivots, with an exuberant list of participants’ names and phrases that capture their collective dynamic: “The Place to Be. A Light. A Beacon. More Than Food. A Place Where People Aren’t Leaving. A Brotherhood.”
This kind of evidence-based group model (increasingly used throughout the organization) helps participants make strides. Indeed, according to Sheltering Arms Program Coordinator, Racquel Jones, groups may be the first time many youths engage in public health issues directly affecting them. “They see they’re not the only ones struggling, and they come back. They become consistent.” To meet their interests and needs, Wilkerson adds, “we’re probably doing about 15 to 20 different workshops per month, with a mix of trips, panels and other ways to engage youths in a pro-social way.”
There’s also a ripple effect. Different areas of this vast organization convene for Pride Parades. Events like a memorial after the Orlando shooting are drawing more youths (right). “Empowerment turns kids into activists,” Bowen-Avery observes.
Walking past the open door of a Young Men 2 Young Men session, Amy Wilkerson overhears a youth encourage others to use condoms. “You think you’re not at risk, but you never know. You could save lives.” Another shares his girlfriend’s news that she’s HIV positive. “I wouldn’t have known, if she hadn’t said something. I’m lucky I use protection.”
Wilkerson is stunned by their comfort level and candor. “I don’t think they knew they needed to protect themselves until hearing it from each other.” She’s not amazed, however, that participants represent a range of sexual preferences including heterosexual, despite meeting in a community known for its homophobia. “This is just what we do.”
Could it be a model for a nation desperate for examples of how to get along? She chuckles. “Yeah.”
As for Jerome, he’d like young people to know the groups and programs are “some of the best places to not just talk but to finally get services to help you. This is one of the few places to offer services and a safe environment to have these conversations—to express these things. A lot of people have these bottled up feelings….Plus, I can’t say that I would have gotten some of the jobs I’ve gotten without my coordinator.”
Jerome is thinking about his future, now that some of Sheltering Arms’ employment programs and services have helped him get more focused. “I would love to be the owner of my own hobby shop,” he confesses, referring to his skill at Yugioh and Magic.
“I grew up infatuated with card games. I figure why not incorporate that into something that would benefit everybody?”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.