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Reaching Out to Others Living in the “War Zone”

By Gregg Wilhelm

"You're bred to hold a secret," says Benjamin Byrd.

The 23-year-old construction worker is referring to life on East Baltimore's streets, where the unwritten rule is "don't snitch" about prevalent drug activity, violence or crime. Byrd sees an up side to this culture of being close-mouthed, however. It should boost his credibility as a mentor for youth looking to confide in someone about the stresses of urban life.

Byrd is an alumnus of the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition's (HEBCAC) Youth Opportunity (YO) Program, located just six blocks north of the Bloomberg School. Often described as a "war zone" from which many residents cannot retreat, this neighborhood garnered national headlines in 2002 when drug traffickers firebombed the house of a woman who often reported illegal activity to police. Angela Dawson and six members of her family were killed.

Byrd and six other young adults comprise the YO Program's Peer Leadership Group, part of a research project developed and managed by the School's Center for Adolescent Health under the Health and Opportunity Partnership (HOPE). This fall, after 10 months of training in mental health intervention, the peer leaders will start meeting with African-American participants, ages 16 to 23. Most are high school dropouts, and nearly half of them have witnessed a homicide, creating an environment of chronic traumatic stress.

Lesson One: Don't use the term "mental health."

"We learned early that these young people were not going to respond to us or come to meetings if we talk about 'mental health,'" says Amy Templeman, senior research program coordinator, who oversees HOPE. "The Peer Leadership Group made us sensitive to that right away, so we talk about 'emotional problems' [and] 'what's happening in your life.'"

Since last December, the peer leaders have been attending training sessions with Templeman to learn about mental health and group facilitation. They honed their skills by facilitating sessions of the Center for Adolescent Health's Photovoice project, which explores a variety of health-related issues with youth as captured through their own photography. And, working with the New Light Leadership Coalition—a locally based organization that teaches peer-centered approaches to leadership development—they learned more about leadership, conflict resolution, communication, team building and public speaking.

As the peer leaders begin their mentoring this fall, a part-time clinical psychologist will be on hand to continue training and support.

The partnership between the Center and HEBCAC took root three years ago with the arrival of Freya Sonenstein, PhD, the Center's director and professor in Population, Family and Reproductive Health, whose research focus is on sexual and reproductive health.

"We conducted focus groups with youth, interviewed HEBCAC staff, compiled health-screening data and talked with the Center's community advisory board," she says. "We then went through a prioritization process and, although we could have focused on any number of health issues, came to the conclusion to concentrate on mental health."

"This decision-making process represents a bit of a paradigm shift in that researchers tend to feel comfortable in moving in directions of their own expertise," says Darius Tandon, PhD, co-investigator of HOPE and an instructor in the School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics. "But the Center felt it was important that we move in the direction that the community wants."

The peer leaders themselves say they're eager to make a difference.

"We understand people because we're from the same neighborhood and overcame the same barriers," says Pete Jones, 24, an electrician. "Being a group leader is not an issue because we're already big brothers."