By Callie Shanafelt, California Health Report
About two years ago, the director of an Alameda County’s juvenile justice residential program known as Camp Sweeney asked the County’s Emergency Medical Services Agency to come to career day at the camp. The agency pulled out some stops to impress the kids: they flew in a helicopter. Firefighters and paramedics volunteered to talk to the 70 or so youth serving time.
Afterwards, the kids were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“Historically, they said police or probation officers, because those were the adults they had positive experience with,” said Alex Briscoe, director of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency.
But this time, 15 young men said they wanted to be Emergency Medical Technicians.
The result has been an unusual collaboration that is changing the lives of many troubled youth.
Responding to that initial interest, a few EMS staff volunteered to provide a free first responder training at the camp. When that program was successful, they offered free EMT training classes Monday and Wednesday evenings at the Health Care Services Agency building. The classes were open to anyone in the community, and many graduates of the program at Camp Sweeney got involved.
After the success of that program, they developed an intensive training program to prepare interested youth for EMT certification. The program, called the EMS Corps, graduated its first class of 11 young people in January.
“We’ve identified a really critical career pipeline that only requires a high school diploma and approximately 6 months of training,” Briscoe said.
The Health Care Services Agency contracts with Paramedics Plus to provide all ambulance services in the county. Paramedics Plus hires at least 30-40 new EMTs a year, as current employees become paramedics, firefighters or change careers.
The company committed to hire at least 10 graduates of the EMS Corps a year – including young men like Jorge Villanueva.
Villanueva served time in Camp Sweeney for a fight with a classmate. The camp director said it seemed like Villanueva had a knack for working with people, and suggested that he take the first responder class.
Before Camp Sweeney, Villanueva had bounced from home to home and had a tough time finding stability.
“My mom wanted more the drugs than us, in a way,” said Villanueva.
He actually appreciated his time at Camp Sweeney, he said, because of the stability and three meals a day.
“While I was at camp, it really opened my eyes, to see that I didn’t want to give the same life my mom gave me to my kids,” Villanueva said.
So he took the first responder training and liked it. When he got out of Camp Sweeney in the summer of 2010, he got a job working at the Goldilocks bakery in Hayward. Once the EMS Corps program started soliciting new applicants, Villanueva applied, one of 300 people vying for 22 open spots.
And he got in.
Now spends his days learning how to take vital signs and assess what may be wrong with a patient. Eventually, he wants to become a paramedic.
“I gotta crawl before I walk,” Villanueva said.
Briscoe sees their progress from a slightly different perspective. Their life experiences, he said, have prepared them for what they may see working in an ambulance, and gives them an advantage over other applicants. “They’re 18 going on 50,” said Briscoe.
Creating this kind of employment pipeline also contributes to the overall health of Alameda County, in addition to providing a uniquely qualified and diverse pool of EMTs, Brisoce said.
“More important than whether these kids have health insurance is if they have a good job,” said Briscoe.
He says good schools, good jobs and clean air contribute more to health than hospitals and doctors.
But preparing low-income youth, many of who have criminal records, for employment is not without its challenges.
The EMS Corps includes training in soft skills, such as how to shake hands. Participants wear uniforms and are required to stand up when an adult walks into the room.
“We do a lot of life coaching work and development of positive self-outlook,” said Briscoe.
Villanueva says he also appreciates the chance to get along with people of other races while working on group projects.
After completing the program in May, Villanueva and his classmates will have to pass the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians Exam to become certified EMTs and meet Paramedics Plus hiring requirements. If they don’t pass the first time, the EMS Corps is committed to helping them pass eventually.
Briscoe plans to expand the program to 40 participants. He hopes that other counties will replicate the program in their jurisdictions.
But for Villanueva, the most important thing is that he’ll get to help people.
“I’ll save lives,” Villanueva said. “I’m not just a criminal, I’m becoming a hero.”