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Helping teens with questions about sexuality

When he was growing up in rural Montana, Justin Wheeler knew he "never would have felt comfortable coming out in high school." Ten years later, Wheeler is a second-year student at DMS and a recipient of a 2002- 03 Schweitzer Fellowship. His fellowship project involves helping youths in southern New Hampshire explore their sexuality in an environment more accepting than the one he experienced as a teenager.

Witness: "It's powerful to witness social change," says Wheeler of his work with Manchester Outright, a nonprofit organization that provides support to teens who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning their sexuality.

"The coolest thing is to see these kids going through a lot of issues that I went through as a gay man at 20," adds Wheeler. "They are approaching these issues as young as 14. They are vocal and seen by the community, which is pretty amazing."

Second-year medical student Justin Wheeler has found that his year as a Schweitzer Fellow—serving in an advisory capacity with a group called Manchester Outright— has helped to solidify his belief that medicine is best practiced in a holistic fashion.
Photo: Katrina Mitchell

Community service: One of seven participants from Dartmouth Medical School in this year's Schweitzer Fellowship program, which awards grants for community service projects, Wheeler has been working with Manchester Outright since April of 2002. He has served on its board of directors; helped develop a Web site for the organization; prepared educational displays for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services; and designed information packets for Manchester schools and youth-service providers.

"Justin has made a lasting contribution to Manchester Outright," says past president Tiffany Willis. "His enthusiasm, energy, and commitment to the organization and the board of directors have helped us attain our goals for the past year."

Wheeler has found the experience educational as well as personally rewarding. He says that he learned the most from representing Manchester Outright before a graduate-level grant-writing class at Springfield (Mass.) College. The class had voted to use Manchester Outright as the community group around which the students would structure their grant-writing efforts, and Wheeler was the liaison between the class and the organization. This past fall, he learned that Manchester Outright had secured a major grant from the Bean Foundation.

Support: And the role Wheeler has enjoyed the most has been facilitating a weekly group-support session for teens. He believes that although gay teens are coming out in safer environments than ever before, the encouragement they can give each other is still invaluable.

"The first time I facilitated a group, I watched the kids come in and change their demeanor and their body language in the meeting space," recalls Wheeler. "They literally shed the defenses that they have on the street. I sat and watched their moments of realization that they can feel safe in group and find support and encouragement. They open up and laugh more and are more vibrant individuals."

The teens who come to the sessions feel the same way. "I first started going to Outright because I was not sure if being gay was okay," explains a teen who wishes to remain anonymous. "When I went there, I found that everyone was friendly to me, and I felt like I was in a place where I could be myself. I knew that I would be fine, and my self-esteem slowly rose. I knew it was a safe environment."

Wheeler says that comments like this remind him that physicians can be powerful advocates for their patients. He had previously served as a peer adviser on coming-out issues and sexuallytransmitted diseases. But most of the Manchester teens are at least five years younger than he is, so Wheeler feels that he has interacted with them as a professional rather than a peer.

That has solidified his belief that medicine is best practiced in a holistic fashion. As he concludes his Schweitzer Fellowship, he pledges to remember that practicing medicine involves more than merely addressing patients' physical concerns.

Guide: "When I talk to the kids, I see that they are looking for people to mentor and guide them, queer individuals they can see being active in the community. That's why they trust us and seek our advice," Wheeler says.

"There is strength in medicine and medical knowledge, but it is just as important for there to be people to mentor and guide these kids."

Katrina Mitchell

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