Project Brotherhood tackles health, social issues

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By LISA BARBELLA

The life expectancy of black men in Chicago is 62 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. This means the average black man in Chicago will barely live long enough to begin collecting Social Security.

Project Brotherhood tackles the problems underlying this startling statistic by providing free holistic health care to black men who are uninsured or cannot afford to visit a doctor. About 70 participants gather every Thursday night from 4 to 7 p.m. at Project Brotherhood's clinic, 6337 S. Woodlawn Ave., for services ranging from medical care to haircuts to assistance with resume writing.

"The beauty of Project Brotherhood is we understand that what underlies medical conditions are social conditions that can be addressed," said Dr. Thomas Mason, the organization's co-medical director. Primarily black male physicians, social workers and administrative staff who are able to provide culturally and gender specific care staff the clinic. They reject the professional distance model taught in medical schools in favor of a more open relationship with their patients, according to Mason.

"It is something for black men because only we know the issues that relate to us," said Project Brotherhood participant Tyreke Johnson. "It is just like women's health or anything else. We have certain issues like high hypertension rates and gun violence, so I can come here and talk to people who look like me and understand me."

Project Brotherhood's holistic approach to health includes a social support group, fatherhood courses and a Qi-Gong class that teaches breathing techniques to reduce stress.

The clinic opened in 1998 after group health and social workers noticed that black men were not visiting the doctor as often as women or men of other races. They conducted a series of focus groups to determine why black males avoided the doctor and what type of environment would entice them to come into a clinic.

Marcus Murray, who now serves as Project Brotherhood's executive director, participated in the initial focus groups and was asked to help start the clinic.

"Men are tough," he said. "The concept was what can we do to make black men come to the doctor? So we asked them."

The men in the focus groups asked for additional services such as a barber and job counseling. They also asked for doctors whom they could relate to and could trust.

"There is a lot of mistrust of the medical system," said Murray. "Black folks usually hear horror stories about the medical community - from the Tuskegee experiment to going to your local neighborhood doctor with a pain in your right foot and they cut off your right arm."

He and his associates try to create a relaxed and male-friendly environment.

"You don't see Oprah magazine in here," he said. "We break out the Wii sometimes."

The clinic averages between 40 and 45 medical visits each week, according to Murray. About 30 men attend the social support group to discuss health issues, current events and social problems facing their community.

Project Brotherhood's advertising is primarily word-of-mouth. The program also hosts a radio show on Sundays from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. on 106.3 FM.

The clinic is funded through grants but recently had to cut some programs, including youth services, because of lack of funding. Murray is trying to move toward private donations.

One of the products of youth services is 28-year-old Perrin Greene, who has been with Project Brotherhood since he was 14 and now serves as the organization's program director.

Murray said Project Brotherhood's value extends beyond affordable medical care and social services.

"We give men love and show them respect," he said. "From that they become better fathers, better husbands and better citizens."

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