Alameda County’s New EMS Corps Brings At-Risk Youth To Public Health Work

on Wednesday, Jul. 27th

In the San Francisco Bay Area, a first-of-its kind program rolling out next month will steer at-risk and low income youth into public health careers, a play to turn neglected neighborhoods into fertile ground for recruiting new emergency responders.

The EMS Corps, established by Alameda County’s Health Services Agency, trains young adults for internships within the department; others complete a first responder training program administered in partnership with the county. And the program has grown to include young people who have been in trouble with the law.

Errnesto Diaz is a sweet, bright 19-year-old spent seven months at Camp Sweeney, a residential facility for youth offenders. He’d been arrested on assault charges. Diaz said given the opportunities that have resulted from the mentorship and training he received, “…if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change anything. I would go to Camp Sweeney, do that time, because it’s worth it.”

The county health department training during his sentence has put him on course to a career as an emergency medical technician. The program’s motto pretty much sums up the transformation – “save lives, don’t destroy lives.”

County health department Director Alex Briscoe led the team that developed the EMS Corps, the program that will create employment opportunities for young men like Diaz. “In marginalized communities your sense of the future gets constrained,” Briscoe said. “Young people need to be shown a world of possibility, and then given a specific and clear path to achieving it.” (Disclosure: Briscoe’s department funds programs at Turnstyle’s parent company, Youth Radio).

Briscoe said Camp Sweeney youth themselves sparked the idea for the first responder training, after meeting firefighters at a career fair there. “A colleague who was running the camp at the time said, Alex, we’re getting this really crazy stuff in the feedback — ENT, QPR — and then we realized they were saying EMT. My staff said, we should go up to camp and start preparing people for these careers.”

The county partners with a community organization called Bay EMT to provide medical training to youth offenders. Firefighters staff the program, on a volunteer basis. That includes Bay EMT’s founder, Wellington Jackson, who spends about 30 unpaid hours a week on the program. He recruits youth from low income communities, to develop emergency responders who are already invested in these neighborhoods they grew up in. About 25 percent of those youth go on to earn their EMT certification.

Jackson said sometimes the community connection is sobering, like during the section of the course that deals with traumatic injuries. “You can see a difference in their attitude because we’re talking about things they can relate to. They may have never seen a heart attack or a stroke before, but the vast majority of them have seen some type of violence.”

Briscoe said that connection is part of what informed the jobs program. “We had this thought internally, of, how do we develop a workforce that looks more like the people we serve ? We were also really focused on this idea of young men of color, who are overrepresented in juvenile justice, foster care, psych emergency, and serious emotional disturbances in schools.”

Briscoe said that’s the promise of embedding EMT training within Camp Sweeney, and pairing it with deep youth development work, which at Camp Sweeney is led by EMS Corps Program Manager Michael Gibson. Young people receive academic enrichment and mentoring, helping them build up their self esteem, and map out life goals.

In a recession, though, as soon as career plans don’t bear fruit, it would be tempting for a young offender to slip back into trouble. Briscoe said that’s where his health department has unique leverage; it doubles as the county’s EMS authority, responsible for contracting ambulance companies. “When we call up Paramedics Plus and say, we’d like you to employ our young people,’ what we’re saying is, ‘The contract under which you’re raising hundreds of millions in revenue? The person who’s managing that contract is asking us to do that.’ That’s a different type of request than, hey, I’m running an EMT program, would you be willing to interview some of our folks.”

This November, that means about ten percent of new jobs would be designated for graduates of the county’s training program, six young people like Ernesto Diaz. He has already passed the national certification.

When his paperwork clears in a few months, Diaz will be the first graduate of the county’s training program at Camp Sweeney to become an EMT. Mike Gibson said he and Diaz’s mentors in the program are hoping that Diaz continues on to medical school.

A version of this report aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.

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