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Milwaukee native honored as a leader in 'Changing the World in Health'

Posted at 8:11 AM, Jan 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-08 23:40:24-05

MILWAUKEE — A Milwaukee native is in the international spotlight for his idea about how to make health a priority among black men. Aaron Perry had an idea to put health centers in barbershops after he was diagnosed with diabetes at 29.

"Of course I was angry. How did I let this happen to me to my body? How did I let myself down?" said Perry.

He grew up playing sports around the neighborhood.

"27th and Burleigh, 24th and Hadley, we bounced around a lot," he said.

Perry played basketball at Hamilton High School and went on to play at Marycrest International University. He is a former police officer and today is part of the gang unit with Dane County Juvenile Justice.

At 42, Perry learned his life was in jeopardy when a doctor said his diabetes was out of control.

"You could have a limb amputated, you can go blind, you could have a stroke, so I said, 'Doctor what do you want me to do?' He said, 'I need you to exercise,'" said Perry.

He started running.

"362 days from that conversation I crossed the finish line of my first Ironman," said Perry.

Perry said this made him the first African American man with diabetes to finish an Ironman. Shortly after, he started the Madison Chapter of Black Men Run.

"African American men's health, we're worse upon than any other ethnic group and it doesn't seem to be changing in many places," said Perry.

It was at his barbershop where Perry got his next idea.

"I would hear men coming in talking about all types of health challenges," said Perry.

He convinced the owner of JP Hair Design in Madison to let him open a Men's Health and Education Center inside the shop.

"It was a no brainer," said Jeff Patterson. "I hear a lot of ideas here in the shop, but his was green light like it's something that needs to happen."

Hundreds of clients visit the popular shop every week. 4,200 men have stopped in the health center.

"Barbers all over the country, their clients trust them so we can persuade people to make better choices about health right behind our chair," said Patterson.

Shawn Williams is a client and now gets his blood pressure checked almost every time he gets a cut.

"I think it's a good addition to the barbershop. Not a good addition, a great addition," said Williams.

When the barbershop is open, so is the health center.

"They got somewhere safe to go to get information about health education," said Williams.

It took Perry seven years to get a grant to make his idea a reality. The services are free.

"We do daily blood pressure screenings, we do diabetes testing, we do flu shots, we do insurance enrollment. We now have a mental health and substance abuse counselor," said Perry.

Perry has been named one of Time magazines "50 Most Influential People in Health Care." He is a Wisconsin Innovation Award Winner. In March, Perry will be honored in Men's Health magazine as "One of the Five Global Leaders Changing the World in Health."

"When our men get their haircut they are ready to take on the world. What better way to put that healthcare in front of them," said Perry.

There are now four barbershops in the Madison area with health centers. Perry hopes more Wisconsin cities will do the same. Perry is in talks with barbers in other states.

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