Aaron Perry, left, and J.C. Dawkins at the Men's Health and Education Center on Madison's west side.

As a wide receiver on Wisconsin’s turnaround teams of the early 1990s, J.C. Dawkins scored seven touchdowns and hauled in 69 receptions for 841 yards. Twenty-five years later, he still looks fit and athletic, albeit with some gray in his beard. So it was a shock when he suffered a heart attack last summer.

“I coded for a minute and 39 seconds,” he said. “I made it through, no heart tissue damage, no effects. But if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. I have a 12-year-old and a 17-year-old son and I was 46 years old when I had my heart attack. I just want to make sure people don’t go through what I went through.”

Dawkins credits the incident for fueling his passion to work as outreach coordinator at the Men’s Health and Education Center located at JP Hair Design barbershop on 584 Grand Canyon Dr. Founded by Aaron Perry, the center has drawn national interest from NBC’s Today show and Time magazine, among others. It recently added a wellness center and yoga studio.

On a visit to the center in June, Dawkins and Perry spoke with the Cap Times about activities at the center and health challenges unique to black men.

What all goes on in this space?

Dawkins: On Wednesday nights, we have black men’s yoga classes and we’ve also started classes for black middle school boys. A lot of the wellness activities we do, like the yoga classes, happen over here in the wellness center. It has an office that doubles as an exam room, so when we do diabetes screenings and blood pressure checks, we can have a little more privacy.

We hope this place will give them relief from the turmoil of the outside world. We want this to be a safe space. It’s a sanctuary where they can find people who care about them, who understand their plight and will do things to help them get through what they’re going through.

You’ll notice we have a number of computers that were donated to us. We’re going to start a GED class for young men who didn’t graduate and are having a hard time finding jobs. When you talk about the overall health of black men, it’s not necessarily a physiological thing, it’s a psychological thing, it’s a sociological thing as well.

There are so many fitness programs to choose from these days. Why yoga?

Dawkins: We’re trying to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellness of these men, so mental health is something we really feel strongly about and yoga helps with mental health. It’s another way to get these guys in an environment that’s stress free.

The work here has expanded from the health screenings to wellness programs in just a few years. What’s next?

Dawkins: It all started with a focus on diabetes, with Aaron being diabetic and diabetes being prominent in the black community and us as black men being genetically predisposed to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. We really want to focus on that. We want to focus on blood pressure. We just want to carve out a role in the community, with the health care disparities between black men and white men, the education gap. We want to find a way where we can help and alleviate some of the things that black men here are going through.

Perry: What we try to do is address all the barriers in the health care system: the fear, the shame, the trust. That’s a big one. You may never establish trust with some of these men, but you can certainly establish a relationship with them.

The other big part of this is you can walk into the barbershop and you can ask men about this community and they can tell you so many things about this place, but when you ask the community about the social and health conditions of black men, no one can answer that.

So when we say we want men to get involved in the community, we also want you to get to know us, to see us for what we really are. You are more likely to utilize discretion when you know individuals, what their challenges are, their struggles. Once you get to know us, you interact differently and we get better outcomes.

We want to be the nation’s first federally qualified health center to open in a barbershop. And that’s a huge undertaking, but we’ll get there because these men trust us and we clearly have found a model that works. Time Magazine didn’t make a mistake when they said we’re thinking outside the hospital. The current model in place doesn’t fit a lot of the men.

Are there fitness spaces in this city that are not welcoming to black men?

Dawkins: I think, whether real or imagined, black men in our community feel ostracized, whether it’s the schools, the health care system or just around town in social settings. If that’s how these men perceive their role, then one thing we really want to do is overcome that. In a way, it’s sad that there are so many needs, but it really gives us a sense of purpose.

Are there issues you’ve encountered that you didn’t anticipate?

Dawkins: There are things that are a lot worse than I anticipated. The average age of mortality for black men in Dane County is 51. That just shocks me to my core. When we take a blood pressure screening, we ask some questions to get demographic data. Most of these men, on a scale of 1 to 10, rate their stress 7 and above. You ask them how they sleep and it’s four to five hours a night. Those are things that go a long way in your health and blood pressure that they don’t realize. How much water do you drink? They seem like small things, but when you talk to a lot of people and they don’t realize how important those small things are, it opens your eyes.

Does it cost anything to come in and take a yoga class or get a screening?

Perry: Whenever I talk about this place, I have to mention grants we’ve received from the Wisconsin Partnership program and SSM Health. Without them, this would not be here. And this will always be free.

The best way to describe it is that some of these guys have been through enough and it’s important for us to say this won’t cost you a dime. When I say enough, I mean that when we sit in there and men are getting their blood pressure, they talk about their challenges: victimization, violence, there are so many factors. We’re fortunate that we can have those interactions. These men would never share that with the medical community and that’s what makes us unique. We want to be leaders in showing that preventative health care can be free. 

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Jason Joyce has lived in Madison for over 30 years, starting as a student at UW-Madison. After working at Isthmus for 15 years, where he oversaw digital operations and wrote a sports column, he took over as news editor at The Capital Times in 2013.