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These healers want to ensure trauma victims aren’t treated like ‘just another black kid in a hospital’ | Mike Newall

Often, the young black men who most deal with trauma can't find someone who can relate to them in the spaces where they need it most: hospital rooms and treatment centers.

Isaiah Jackson reacts as he prepares to speak during the Drexel University  Community Health Worker Peer Training.
Isaiah Jackson reacts as he prepares to speak during the Drexel University Community Health Worker Peer Training.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI

It was the last day of class for the Healers. That's the name they gave themselves.

The nine men sat in a Drexel University conference room, soon-to-be-graduates of a program that teaches young black men, all victims of trauma, to work through their own experience and to treat it in others.

The Healers did what they'd done for the last nine weeks — four days a week, six hours a day. They got to the heart of it. They'd entered the room as strangers, and now called one another family. Or better yet, the Golden State Warriors. No ball hogs, they joked. Everyone gets the rock. Everyone shines.

Just listen to Isaiah Jackson as he runs through the roster. There's Bryan McKie, 26, "comfortable being uncomfortable." Vincent Hall, 28, "always keeping it light" when the Healers need a break. Anthony Miles, 27, "chill and smooth" — who, over the last nine weeks, had found his voice. And now he wouldn't stop using it.

Sweet Waltkeem Jenkins, 21, who was a part of the inaugural class last year, but had battled a deep depression and suicidal thoughts. He pushed on, and was now a stellar student, even standing in for instructors at times. The class took his victory as collective victory — living proof that Healers could be healed.

The men felt proud. They spent the morning in mock interviews for positions as community health workers and certified peer specialists. They would be going into emergency rooms in the golden hour — the moments after a victim of violence awakes — to help them navigate recovery. They would be guiding their clients through lives irrevocably changed by trauma: through the health system, yes, but through the anger and fear and paranoia, too. The shaking, the nightmares, the flashbacks. They had all experienced some form of it themselves.

But for now, they had a question for Stefanie Wakeman and Tony Thompson, their instructors at the Community Health Worker Peer Project, that had been gnawing at them. Why them? Why had they been selected for the class? Why were they so special?

Divide between victim and helper

A divide exists in Philadelphia between victim and helper. That's because, Wakeman says, there's too often a lack of people in the system with lived experience.

Often, the young black men who deal with trauma the most can't find someone who can relate to them in the spaces where they need it most: hospital rooms and treatment centers, said John Rich and Theodore Corbin, physicians and cofounders of the Drexel University Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. There's an implicit assumption, Rich said, that the trauma suffered by young men of color is their own fault.

"What they encounter, too often, is not 'Wow, you've been shot, that must be really painful for you,' " Rich said, 'but 'What did you get yourself into this time, buddy? You need to change your lifestyle.' That doesn't open a door for men to talk about what types of vulnerabilities they feel."

What happens when you blame someone for their own trauma? You solidify it.

The Healers of 2018

The Healers worked hard. Each man had to put 165 hours in to become a community health worker — and certified by the state as a peer specialist. They covered topics like toxic masculinity, trauma-informed care, the social determinants of health — how poverty, violence, and racism can affect your mental and physical well-being. They learned how to navigate the behavioral health system, how to keep their patients motivated. And they learned the vocabulary to assign to their own symptoms — that many of them had been unable to express.

"I probably have lived trauma every single day of my life," said Terrell Crumpton, 28 — his parents' drug addiction and stealing, his time in the foster-care system, the physical abuse he suffered. "You live that every single day, until you become numb to it, and then get a sense it's normal."

Jackson had been beaten at a Center City hotel, a gun shoved in his face. It jammed. He talked of flashbacks, paranoia, lack of sleep. When McKie was 11, a friend was shot to death. He shared that with the group, and the trauma of a sexual assault, too, and the suicidal thoughts that followed. Miles was shot in Kensington, four bones broken in his neck. Recovery took months.

"We, as black people, when things happen, we always get looked at like we're the reason it happened — caregivers become numb," he said. "We're just another black kid in a hospital."

They talked about forgiveness — how it's not just about the person you're forgiving, but yourself, too. They talked about the self-worth that comes from being taken seriously for once. How that would be the standard they would hold themselves to in their work.

But they kept coming back to their question. Why them? Thompson, the group leader, had an answer.

"Because we saw the commitment, the passion, the desire to want to learn something different," he said. "And the passion for people."

Wakeman chimed in: "You are exceptional, but not unusual. There are so many more like you."

The next day, the room was filled with family and friends, tears and applause. Each student spoke. Thompson promised he would hold back his tears — a promise he broke when Jenkins announced he'd landed a job at City Year, the educational nonprofit, mentoring kids.

When the last diploma was handed out, the group assembled at the front of the room, beaming, their work cut out for them. Thompson turned to the room.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "the Healers of 2018!"