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Paramedic training, poetry change lives for California youth with few options

EMS Corps Poems

Their determination was palpable, and the room buzzed with the energy of a committed group wanting to do “big things.” That was the sense I got while recently listening to a group of EMS Corps students near Oakland, California, who were reading poems they had written about “persistence.”

EMS Corps is a relatively new Alameda County program that trains young men from disadvantaged backgrounds to be EMTs. With an entry level position in the paramedic field, some EMTs can make up to $49,000 their first year, plus benefits. For a community where unemployment and incarceration rates are among the highest in the nation for men of color, the program offers a rare on-ramp to a profession in demand.

In addition to learning how to perform life-saving skills such as CPR, EMS Corps students do weekly physical workouts and attend mental health and leadership training classes. Most of the men have experienced some form of trauma, including gun violence. Helping them to overcome these emotional wounds from their troubled upbringings is part of the program.

Once a week, students gather for a life-coaching class with EMS Corps Executive Life Coach Valerie Street. Street is a larger-than-life figure who teaches them to set goals and think positively. We were told by many students she is one of the main reasons they stay motivated to finish the rigorous five-month program.

On the day we visited, Street had given the students a homework assignment: to write a poem about what it means to be persistent. Each of the 25 students stood and took turns reading their work aloud. At the conclusion of each poem, there was loud applause from their fellow students and a few “Amen’s!” from Street.

Below are two of the poems we heard that day:

Cesar Rivas-Villanueva, age 23
EMS Corps Poems -- Cesar

You do not belong here,
You are an illegal alien, you are an intruder.
You don’t deserve justice, you don’t deserve equality.
You are a wetback, you are a beaner.
Go back to your worthless country!

NO, I have the right to be here,
I have the right to pursue an education.
You won’t bring me down,
You won’t make me quit.

You will never make it, you are stupid.
Go back to washing dishes,
Go back to washing toilets.
Your dreams mean nothing,
Your goals are worthless.

NO, my dreams are fueled by family
My dreams are fueled by community.
I have graduated with a Bachelor’s
I will now become an EMT.
This is for my people, this is by my people.
My dreams will never vanish
My drive will never die
I will never quit!

Gaston Lau, age 24
EMS Corps Poems -- Gaston

Keep Going
I keep going because I am confusion bundled up into a keyhole waiting to be unlocked

I keep going because of top ramen, because it’s fun, sometimes, to eat out of Styrofoam cups, but
also tragic, when all the time

I keep going to eat the dust off vinyls, to burn gospel onto CDs and slap it outside

I keep going because my momma thinks I’ve failed
and because she still loves me anyway

I keep going for those mornings when the sun rises against a gray gloomy sky

I keep going because love is the next truth, but what is love — what is love — what is love — what
is love

I keep going because of back pain, joint pain, knee, foot and heart pain

I keep going for all the headphone children, who had, if no one else, Tupac Shakur to tell them
keep ya head up and reach for more

I keep going because sometimes I must

I keep going because the spirit of my ancestors still cry out from being poisoned by opium, from
being kept as comfort women
from being sold a fake dream
for the promise gold

I keep going because if anyone understands the pain in the Gaza strip right now, they are the
Japanese who have been interned; they are those who have been deported; they were those who
made the middle passage

I keep going? I keep going … I keep going!

All right

But sometimes I lose it

Because after all, the night will never be too old for 24 hour donut shops, the poor man’s version
of a quiet well-lit place

for the dive bars, and the single mothers holding down 3 jobs to hold up their children

for the crack houses, a refuge for the refuse of humanity

I lose it because sometimes self-destruction is fun, and sometimes, the only safe way to scream is
to drive on an empty Bay Bridge late at night going 80 on the 40 curve

Because I got my eyes wide open and still can’t see anything

Because I’m from the Bay, mane, where cash is king and evil reigns supreme — CREAM
capitalism rules everything around me

And though my bones may be weary

I’m going to keep going for the brothers who checked out too early

Because I already know what giving up is like

So I’m going to see what happens if I just keep going

Watch Kaiser Health News Reporter Sarah Varney and PBS NewsHour producer Cat Wise’s profile of EMS Corps on the PBS NewsHour tonight. You can tune in on our UStream Channel at 6 p.m. EDT or check your local listings.