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Personalities: How to Save a Life

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As crime and violence ravaged 1980s New York City, EMT James "Rocky" Robinson realized there was a vast disparity of emergency response care between poor and affluent neighborhoods. So in 1988, Robinson founded Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps (BSVAC). After starting off with two volunteers who responded to emergencies on foot, BSVAC now boasts emergency and preventive care services, EMT training courses, and a community outreach program that works with at-risk children. Benefactors have donated funding, ambulances, and a trailer, but Robinson and his volunteers struggle to scrape money from wherever they can. "We still don't have a lot of money," he says. "But we got a lot of stories to tell."

On what he learned from the Jewish community: One of the cultures I admired was the Jewish community. We used to respond in their area and by the time EMS got there, the patient was already in the hospital [because of their volunteer ambulance corps]. In my community [Bedford-Stuyvesant], the ambulance service would take half an hour to an hour, with people just lying in the street watching their blood spill out into the gutter. So I said, if I'm not part of the solution, I'm part of the problem.

On the obstacles BSVAC originally faced: We were an ambulance corps without an ambulance. We didn't have any funding, we were in an abandoned house—but know what we had? We had skills, we had tennis shoes, we had trauma bags, and we had radios. And when we heard that someone in the community was shot or stabbed, we would literally run and get there. Even though we couldn't remove the patient, we could stop the bleeding.

On BSVAC's community outreach: What I train the kids at risk to do is to pull up your pants and raise your mind and turn your hats back around. We make sure they have a military-type appearance; we make sure they're in school. We expose them to life-saving techniques. We expose them to professional people, so instead of having idols like drug dealers, they got idols like President Obama and other people who have made it from nowhere. We are trying to give a different atmosphere and teach them how to save a life instead of take a life.

Marianne Aiello

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