By Andrea Poteet
“I don’t think a success story is just because your pockets are full,” Angelo Brown says in his cheerful tone. “I think a success story is because you get what you want in life.”
For Brown, 28, success is now measured in smiles brought to faces, his way of continuing the outreach he did with AIDS Partnership of Michigan’s REC Boyz program until it was disbanded due to budget cuts at the end of last year.
After working as a coordinator for the program for six months, Brown suddenly found himself without a job. He was interested in volunteering, but battling diabetes and without transportation to get to a nonprofit organization’s headquarters made it difficult. So he applied some of the principals he learned working with youth in the program to his own life.
“I’ve kind of been just taking care of the people that I know personally and talking to people on Facebook,” he says. “I haven’t been doing that much with my time but I’ve been making sure the people I know are growing up doing more with themselves. If they are feeling a little down I make sure I talk to them the way I used to and make them feel a little better and it works.”
His current situation is far from the mobility he most misses about the REC Boyz, an acronym for “real enough to change,” who traveled to night clubs and other spots where men ages 13 to 24 hung out to teach them about safe sex.
“Most of the places I know, they want the people that they reach out to, to come to them,” he says. “We went to the clubs, we went and did events that were out in the open and people would walk by and go ‘oh that looks fun’ and that’s when we would reach out and talk to them. Our major goal was to the go to the people and make sure the people who need the help were found.”
While working with the REC Boyz, Brown said his desire to help sometimes manifested itself in odd ways. Bent on helping youth in the program use their minds in creative ways, Brown often set up debates, encouraging participants to critique the thought patterns of each other. He said it sometimes took a lot of energy to make sure the debates did not turn into verbal arguments.
“I always feel like you learn the most about what you talk about when you have to defend it,” he says. “My boss, Hal Smith, pulled me aside one time and said ‘why are you always ending it so that they argue with each other?’ When you have strong minds, it’s kind of hard to make sure that punches don’t get thrown, but as time went on, I got better at it.”
After the group disbanded, several members instituted “underground,” meetings, in which they attempt to spread the group’s message with little or no funding. Brown said he can’t afford transportation to its meeting, but he follows the group online and is glad that it is still, in some sense, active.
“What I like about it is that they haven’t let the soul of the REC Boyz die,” he says.
His love for helping others began as a volunteer with Ruth Ellis Center, where he met former staff member Cynthia Goodman. She treated volunteers like “her kids,” Brown said, and Brown took notes on how she built connections with people, applying those skills to his own work there.
“When you work with youth, you want to teach them values, but at the same time, you want to make them feel like their work is important,” he says. “A lot of people that work with youth try to constantly tell the kids what they should do but they don’t listen.”
Seeing what the youth did and did not respond to helped him build his own successful approach, he said.
“When I volunteered, I would suggest things and I would try to make what everyone was doing possible,” he said. “I found that it not only was rewarding, but it constantly made the next day better. That’s what kept me trying to do more within the community. I felt like if I could make someone think bigger and better, it would make me that way too.”
Brown said he became interested in AIDS Partnership Michigan and the REC Boyz as a way to educate himself on safe sex and STD prevention.
“The thing I loved about working with that organization was it made you feel like you can make safe sex fun, you can instill it in yourself to where it’s the first thing you think of; it becomes a reaction,” he says.
In addition to using his time at REC Boyz and Ruth Ellis to help those he cares about, Brown, a self-described “video game nerd,” is focusing on starting his own business; he hopes to start a console-driven arcade where video game players can socialize with others who share their interests. With most of the needed consoles already collected, he’s saving up to find a venue.
During his youth, Brown said he struggled to “find” himself, donning Goth-inspired clothing like black trench coats, black lipstick and spiked hair.
“I did whatever I could do to be different, but at the same time, it really wasn’t me,” he says. “Trying to come up with who I was, was what the problem was.”
When he realized he was bisexual after a relationship with another future REC Boy, Brown said he didn’t make a conscious choice to come out, he merely went about his business as normal, occasionally dating men as well as women.
“I just did it,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was hiding anything. I said to myself ‘I’m not going to hide me to anybody, but unless you ask me, that’s the only way you’re gonna find out.'”
While his mother battled drug addiction, he was raised in Detroit by his grandmother since age 5. A brother who lived with them got send to jail and Brown spent most of his time with his grandmother, who also battled diabetes. That background fueled his desire to help those who feel they are alone, he said.
“That’s why when I see someone sitting by themselves, I’ll be the one to walk over and say ‘hey how you doing?,'” he says, “because a lot of times they say they want to be alone but being alone is what’s making them feel bad.”
After spending much of his childhood alone, he said he became inspired to fight for the inclusion of everyone of all sexual orientations and backgrounds. He hopes one day to reenter the nonprofit sector, either at an existing nonprofit or through his own venture, and help reform problems he sees within it. He hopes to focus on ideas, making a “dream factory” where those in charge work to help the ideas of youth volunteers and workers bigger and better.
“These young people today have a lot of great ideas” he says. “Some of them are rough, but they have a good idea and the only thing about it is they don’t have the money or the faith in themselves. A lot of people will make their idea the event and they will make the youth’s idea the decoration of the event. I always thought I would like to design a place where all the ideas are nurtured and constantly built up and constantly training the kids to be the big things in our community.”
Though he said his illness and job loss have made him feel as though he’s not currently in a position to be a role model, his main thrill in life is still seeing other people smile through their misfortunes.
“That would be my dream, to make people have a genuine smile,” he says. “Not ‘I can afford to do whatever I want to, so that’s why I’m smiling,” – because that smile doesn’t last – but a real smile.”