MTV's 'World of Jenks' Tackles Cancer, Autism

Angela Haupt

The only way to understand someone else's life is to live it.

That's the premise behind documentary filmmaker Andrew Jenks's World of Jenks, which returns for a second season tonight at 11 p.m. on MTV. Jenks spent one year living with three young people he calls extraordinary and inspiring--one with autism, another who battled cancer, and one who's using dance to combat violence in his community. The result: a raw, intimate look at daily struggles and victories, and what it means to be a young person today.

"When we were traveling around I'd sometimes feel tired or anxious, or get in a bad mood, and then I'd realize that these three were going through really tough circumstances--and you'd hardly ever hear them complain," Jenks says. "It was very humbling."

World of Jenks introduces viewers to D-Real, a 21-year-old born and raised in Oakland, Calif., one of America's most violent cities. Chad, also 21, is autistic and coping with high school graduation, making big life decisions, and his relationship with his first girlfriend. And then there's Kaylin, 24, who's battled an aggressive cancer that threatens to return as she moves across the country and loses her health insurance.

U.S. News talked to Jenks, 26, about what he learned from the young people he followed, and what we can, too.

Your goal is to showcase the lives of inspirational young people. Why?

Part of it is just how I grew up. My dad works for the United Nations and my mom is a nurse practitioner for a healthcare center in the 'hood. During our dinner conversations, my dad would talk about genocide in Africa, and my mom would talk about some poor immigrant who couldn't afford a basic shot that would save her life. And I was sitting there going, 'Oh my God, this is happening?' That played a big role in me being curious about people who have unfortunate struggles.

[See Lena Dunham's Girls: The Raw Truth About Twentysomethings .]

How is the second season of World of Jenks different from the first?

In season one, I lived in 12 different subcultures--with an animal rescuer, a young woman who was homeless, and a high school football star who was physically abused by his parents when he was younger. It was an amazing experience and I'm proud of it, but at the end of every episode, people wanted to see more--yet we were on to the next subject and world. We realized the format would be much better if we were able to dig deeper and live with three people on and off for an entire year, and really get to understand their lives.

D-Real is using dance to change his community. Tell us about him and why he's inspiring.

We found him on YouTube--he has an amazing video called "Dancing With the Rain," which has 3 or 4 million hits. The backstory is that he was dancing on a street corner that day because, the day before, his brother had been shot and killed. And as an African-American male in that community, oftentimes you're not expected to grieve properly, so it's like you can't cry or confide in anyone. You put the face of whoever died on your shirt with an RIP, and that's it. Now he's doing dance battles around Oakland to promote peace, and he also has a newborn son.

What's Chad like, and what can viewers expect from him this season?

He's just the funniest guy in the world. He has autism, and I followed him during season one, too. I knew he had a big year coming up: He was aging out of his incredible school, which had been his second home for so many years. That was terrifying to him. One challenge for a lot of young people with autism is finding a job that works for them. He's really social and makes people laugh, and one thought was that he should be working on an assembly line. That's a fine job for plenty of people, but it was really sad to think of him doing that. He ended up getting a job at an Italian restaurant, which was perfect because he loves Italian culture.

[See An All-Out Assault on Autism.]

What else did you learn about the challenges of living with autism?

Once you befriend--or in my case, become best friends with--someone with autism, you no longer define them as such. When someone brings up Chad, the first thing that comes to mind is his job at a pizzeria, and that he's now sleeping in his own bedroom for the first time in years. There's a lot more to Chad than just having autism.

Kaylin battled cancer at a young age. You call her one of the most "extraordinary and inspiring individuals" you've met. Why's that?

Kaylin does a wonderful job of articulating her illness and what it's like to go through chemo. At one point, she says, 'It's like having the worst hangover of your life, every single day.' The incredible thing is that Kaylin hardly ever feels bad for herself and tries to put whatever energy she has toward helping other people. She's publishing her own comic book for terminally ill kids, and kids going through chemo who don't have the energy to read an entire book. Kaylin moved from San Francisco to New York City and lost her health insurance, and you get this overwhelming feeling that there are two rules in U.S. healthcare: If you have wealth and power and an MTV show, you can go anywhere and do good. If you're Kaylin, you're kind of neglected, and it's sad because a country is only as good as how it takes care of those who are most vulnerable. And we could all be doing a better job of that.

[See 5 Simple Lifestyle Changes to Help Prevent Cancer.]

What should people know about this generation of young people?

Because of technology, information is like water--it's everywhere. I think young people have a fairly good idea of what's going on in the world, and they realize it's important to give back and contribute. To a certain extent, it's even expected or assumed that that's how we'll behave. Even if we're always on the phone or Tweeting, that doesn't mean we're completely self-oriented. D-Real, Chad, and Kaylin were all about giving back and making a difference, and that's not to say they didn't manage to have fun, too.

What's it like to go through such personal experiences with these people?

I definitely have a strong emotional attachment. I live with these people for a year, and they become similar to family. Kaylin's cancer has since come back, and that was one of the harder days of my life. Even when the smallest thing happens to them, it means something to me. And I would hope that when things happen with me, they'll check in with me, too.

[See 6 Surprising Behaviors that Age You.]

Your book, Andrew Jenks: My Adventures as a Young Filmmaker, came out on Friday. What's it about?

It goes back to when I was a kid travelling around with my parents in Nepal and Belgium, and always relying on a big, bulky VHS camera that was my only friend. And it follows my trajectory as I moved into a nursing home and made my first documentary, and the time I spent living in Japan. It's a fun book, I hope, and takes you behind the scenes with a lot of photos.