Each morning, Jason Clopton rises from his bed at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and prays.
He prays for peace and he prays for strength. And just before he stands, he remembers to pray for his friends and his family.
Clopton, a 36-year-old Black man and mental health counselor known as "the Teen Whisperer," thinks about those he loves most — including his three daughters, his wife and the young people he counsels — as he fights acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, per the Mayo Clinic website. This week, he will begin a fourth round of chemotherapy for the rare form of cancer. His journey could continue for the next year, a disruptive event that's forced him to pause his vocation as his battle continues.
Accustomed to providing support for others, Clopton recently displayed his own vulnerability as he discussed the next steps. I found his GoFundMe link when a friend of mine shared it on Facebook. Clopton, a man who has devoted his life to assisting others, said he needed help.
"It was really difficult for me, especially having to put myself out there," he told me. "I can't work for a year. I can't be an earner within my family. I can't contribute financially."
But it did not take long for the donations to move him closer toward his $60,000 goal. Some gave $10. Others gave thousands. A community of Minnesotans struck by his story answered the call. That made me smile.
Sometimes, it feels as if this whole place might collapse into itself with all of the challenges and division. But the support for Clopton made me think of what's possible when the humanity of a person in need is our only consideration.
"I shed tears almost every time I look at [the GoFundMe page]," Clopton said. "Just seeing the support from the community. People that don't know me. People that are just kind and genuine and that genuinely care about other people. That was heartwarming. That made me feel something deep in my soul. And I want to pass that on to my girls — that there are people out there who care. So, don't forget about those people."
Clopton's podcast, "The Teen Whisperer," on the Sheletta Makes Me Laugh network, offers advice for parents trying to connect with a generation of Minnesota teenagers who watched George Floyd's murder on their iPhones amid the first global pandemic in 100 years.
The folks in Clopton's world deserve praise. Mental health professionals continue to stitch together our lives amid the uncertainty and angst, both common sentiments for anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer.
Per the American Cancer Society, "African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the U.S. for most cancers." And the form of cancer Clopton is battling is more treatable in children than adults.
When Clopton and I talked, he revealed some of the challenges so many cancer patients endure. The nausea, the fatigue. But he aims to focus on the good days.
We are both Black, 30-something fathers, each raising three daughters. And we both have a connection to the sports world. In my 9-to-5, I cover college basketball for ESPN, and Clopton played the sport in high school and college. Our circles are, not surprisingly, connected in this giant small town known as the Twin Cities.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Clopton returned home and decided to focus on nurturing parental relationships with young adults, especially BIPOC children who are too often dismissed, ignored or forgotten in conversations about mental health.
I have been the father of a teenager for the last four months. It's a critical stage and I don't always have the answers. Sometimes, she thinks I'm funny. But she also thinks I'm annoying, so I know the value of Clopton's work, which involves teaching parents to understand their children and change when necessary.
"We are starting to remove the stigma that surrounds mental health," Clopton said on the "Changing Your Parenting Style" episode of his podcast. "Ain't nothin' wrong with it. It's a part of our well-being. Mental health is wealth."
For Clopton, it all happened so fast. A series of chest pains last year prompted multiple trips to the emergency room, where he didn't receive the answers he'd sought. A few months ago, however, a biopsy following the discovery of lumps in his neck revealed his cancer diagnosis. He quickly commenced a treatment regimen at Mayo Clinic.
Most days, he is there alone. COVID protocols limit the number of folks who can visit, and his wife, Maria, alternates weekend trips with his mom while they take turns watching the kids at their home in Maple Grove.
He uses social media and FaceTime, however, to stay connected to a community that has boosted his spirits.
In his solitude, he tries to center himself and steady his mind. But when he worries — about his family and the young people who need him — he reflects on the strangers who've comforted him and made him hopeful.
"I have been uplifting myself," he said. "But I have also been uplifted by my community and my family and my village. It has been such a blessing to go through this test of faith."
Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.
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