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Lifesaving training changes outlook for young men in Oakland

September 25, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
In Oakland, California, a program called EMS Corps trains young men to become certified emergency medical technicians. Students with disadvantaged backgrounds get an intensive five-month course, as well as a powerful, new outlook on what they can do in life and for their neighborhoods. Sarah Varney of Kaiser Health News reports in collaboration with the NewsHour.

GWEN IFILL: The police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last month cast a harsh spotlight on how a majority black city came to have so few black law enforcement officers. In fact, in many communities around the country, police, fire and paramedic services remain predominantly white, no matter what the communities they protect look like.

In Oakland, California, a new effort is under way to change those statistics, and give young men of color new career opportunities.

Sarah Varney of Kaiser Health News collaborated with the NewsHour on this report.

SARAH VARNEY, Kaiser Health News: Twenty-two-year-old Dexter Harris, who lives with his aunt near Oakland, California, is getting ready for a 12-hour shift as an emergency medical technician, or EMT, an entry-level job in the paramedic field.

Harris works full-time and supports himself and some of his family members. But when he was younger, his life was headed in a very different direction.

DEXTER HARRIS: I just thought I could just run around in the streets and make a living off that. If you grew up like me, my house — home was kind of rocky. You didn’t have somebody telling you, oh, you can be whatever you want to be. You could be a doctor. You could be a lawyer. So you kind of start just looking up to the wrong people.

SARAH VARNEY: Harris spent nine months in a juvenile detention center when he was 17, a common experience for many young men of color in Alameda County, which includes Oakland.

Here, black and Latino youth account for nearly 90 percent of those detained in juvenile hall. And school dropout and unemployment rates for that population are among the highest in the country. But while he was in juvenile hall, Harris’ life took a dramatic turn when he was recruited for a new county program that not only trained him how to be an EMT, but profoundly altered what he thought he could do with his life.

WOMAN: Come on.

MAN: One, two, three, four, five, six.

SARAH VARNEY: The program is called EMS Corps. And on a recent afternoon, 25 students in the current class were practicing basic life support skills under the watchful eye of instructor Maria Garcina (ph).

MAN: Chest rise and falls.

WOMAN: So go through. Start with verbal.

MAN: Hello, ma’am, sir. I’m an EMT. I’m here to help you.

SARAH VARNEY: It’s an intensive five-month EMT certification course for men between the ages 18 and 26 who have completed high school or earned their GED.

MAN: I’m going to put it in, facing the roof of the mouth.


MAN: Turn it 180 degrees.

SARAH VARNEY: The program seeks out students with disadvantaged backgrounds. Most are African-American or Latino. The students commit to 40 hours of training a week. They get a lot of hands-on practice, like learning how to operate ambulance equipment.

MAN: What’s the oxygen concentration on the non-rebreather mask?

MAN: Ninety percent.

MAN: All right. And how many liters per minute would that be?


MAN: Fifteen.

MAN: Ten, 15. Good.

SARAH VARNEY: But they also have to pass rigorous anatomy tests.

WOMAN: So, what happens with oxygen and carbon dioxide at the level of the…

CLASS: Diffusion.

WOMAN: Diffusion. What does that oxygen molecule diffuse into?

MAN: Blood tissue.

MAN: Pulmonary capillary.

WOMAN: Pulmonary capillary.

MICHAEL GIBSON, Director, EMS Corps: We have worked with about 90 young men so far. And out of the 90 young men, about — I want to say almost 60 or so are certified EMTs and working in the field.

SARAH VARNEY: Michael Gibson is the director of EMS Corps. He says his own experience spending time in and out of juvenile hall helps him understand the challenges these young men face.

MICHAEL GIBSON: They can’t get a job because of their juvenile record or they do not have enough work experience. Then they’re right back into the revolving door of incarceration. So, in our program, we wanted to be able to address those needs, to eliminate the excuses.

You need a way to get here. Our offices are down the street from the BART station. Here’s a BART ticket. You’re hungry, here’s a $20 Safeway gift card. There’s a $10 Subway gift card. Now you can eat.

SARAH VARNEY: Gibson says those small donations make a big difference. But what really makes EMS Corps stand out from other youth vocational programs is that students are paid to attend, up to $1,000 a month, and the education they receive goes way beyond CPR.

VALERIE STREET, Life Coach, EMS Corps: All right. Stand for the mantra.

CLASS: We have the courage to walk in chaos while others are running away.

SARAH VARNEY: Every week students attend group counseling and leadership training classes. Nearly all have suffered some trauma in their lives, including drug-addicted parents and gun violence.

Valerie Street, the Corps’ executive life coach, pushes the men not to be victims of their troubled lives, but instead to set goals.

VALERIE STREET: We are completing the road map the manhood.

SARAH VARNEY: On the day we visited, five weeks into the five-month program, Street was giving a lesson about persistence.

VALERIE STREET: We don’t want to be hit coming up the field. But, see, that’s where the richness is, getting knocked down and coming back up, and knowing that you’re making five yards, five yards, five yards.

Where is the dreaming? Where is the power of what I can become. It doesn’t exist in our communities, in our schools or anywhere else. They now know who they are and what they can do. Five weeks of coaching puts them in that status. That’s powerful, powerful. It’s the power of the mind.

SARAH VARNEY: The men say no one expected much from them before, but now people in their own neighborhoods rely on them during an emergency.

MAN: I’m happy I’m on the path that I’m on, because if it wasn’t for this program, I would probably be stuck in a box with a cell mate.

MAN: I know now that it doesn’t matter where I have come from, as long as I’m the one to make the change in my family.

SARAH VARNEY: Since the Corps began three years ago, 95 percent of those enrolled have graduated. It costs about $800,000 a year, paid for by local sales tax revenue and public health funds. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has also been a NewsHour funder, provides additional revenue.

MAN: Jumping jacks, go.

CLASS: One, two, three.

SARAH VARNEY: Those who finish their rigorous workouts and medical training still have to take a national test to become licensed EMTs. The Corps’ success rate is high. Three out of four pass the exam. And while the majority find EMT jobs, others enter firefighting, nursing or community college.

Getting the men employed soon after they graduate in the communities they come from is a big priority, says Mike Gibson.

MICHAEL GIBSON: When you look at the stats on the EMS work force, where it’s over 70-plus percent white here in Alameda County, then that’s not equity, right? There’s a disproportionate number of young men of color being left out.

SARAH VARNEY: But he says, since program graduates have started working locally as EMTs and other health professionals, that’s starting to change.

MICHAEL GIBSON: Public agencies are now looking at the community in a different light, because now once they see the young men from our program, they work — it breaks down the stereotypes that some folks may have had towards young men of color, and as well as what young men of color have toward public agencies.

SARAH VARNEY: One of the companies where several EMS Corps graduates have landed, including Dexter Harris, is Paramedics Plus, which provides ambulance services in Alameda County. New EMTs can earn up to $49,000 a year, plus prize benefits like health insurance. The county requires Paramedics Plus to seek out job candidates from impoverished neighborhoods.

But hiring graduates from EMS Corps isn’t a benevolent act. It improves customer service, says chief operating officer Dale Feldhauser.

DALE FELDHAUSER, Paramedics Plus: Being part of the community they serve, it’s helpful. It puts the patient more at ease. It makes the experience significantly less traumatic on the patient, which I think has huge value.

DEXTER HARRIS: What hospital do you normally go to?

WOMAN: Summit.

DEXTER HARRIS: Summit Hospital?

SARAH VARNEY: For his part, Mr. Harris says his new career and the program have changed him in fundamental ways.

DEXTER HARRIS: Just knowing that you’re helping people makes you feel good. Doing it 12 hours a day habitually, you know you’re going to change. You’re going to want to help people on and off the job.

SARAH VARNEY: Harris is doing just that now. He’s a volunteer EMT teacher at Oakland’s Juvenile Hall, and he’s looking the take next step to become a paramedic.