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"Life is like riding a bike. It is impossible to maintain your balance while standing still."

- Linda Brakeall
Author of "Unlocking the Secrets of Successful Women in Business"

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How To Rescue A Neighborhood

His name is James, but people call him Rocky. The name fits. He's big, over six feet tall, and he's tough when he needs to be. James "Rocky" Robinson lives and works in New York City's Bedford-Stuyvesant district, one of the most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. Yet it is here in "Bed-Stuy" that he is saving lives and reviving a community like no one has before.

In 1966, when Rocky was twenty-six years old, his seven-year-old niece was struck by a car on the streets of Bed-Stuy. Had someone at the scene known first aid or CPR, she might have lived. But by the time she reached a hospital, she was dead.

His niece's unnecessary death was one reason Rocky became a paramedic. Working for the Emergency Medical Service of New York City, he realized that more than half the city's emergency calls came from high-crime areas. According to Rocky, residents of crime-plagued minority neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy sometimes had to wait as long as 26 minutes after calling 911 for an ambulance; calls in more affluent white communities were answered in a fraction of the time. Too many people died who didn't have to - people like Rocky's young niece, because they had to wait for an ambulance.

Rocky decided to find out more about the problem. His research revealed that the more affluent communities had organized their own ambulance corps to supplement city services because the city was overwhelmed with calls. "If that's the key to success," he told his friend and EMT (emergency medical technician) colleague, Joe Perez, "we'll start our own corps in Bed-Stuy!"

In 1988, Rocky had no idea that he and Joe would be attempting to establish the first minority-run ambulance service in the country, or just how creative he would have to be to overcome the obstacles. The pair's first challenge was to find a location for the headquarters. They took over an abandoned building that was commonly used by drug dealers. "If junkies could use it to take lives, we could darn well use it to save lives," said Rocky. Because there was no electricity or running water (except for the leaks in the roof) the two men worked during daylight hours. They used a two-way radio to receive emergency calls.

Although they could make do with their new headquarters, Rocky and Joe still lacked the most important component of an ambulance service: an ambulance. An old Chevrolet got them to the scenes of accidents, fires, shootings, and stabbings. But the car didn't always start. At times, they were forced to strap their trauma kits and oxygen tanks to their backs and run on foot to the emergencies. To save lives, they often ran past jeering drug dealers, wise-cracking cops, and astonished onlookers. Everyone laughed, except the victims who were still alive when Rocky and Joe arrived.

The drafty old building was too cold in the winter. A trailer was donated and Rocky and Joe moved the trailer to a lot across the street. They knocked down two shacks used by local drug dealers and set up shop themselves. To the drug dealers, the trailer was a call to battle. For eight months, the drug dealers tried to scare Rocky off their turf. They shot out the windows in the trailer and threatened to burn it down. They shot at Rocky and Joe when the two headed out on emergency calls. Rocky stayed low to the ground and kept going. The drug dealers didn't give up until they finally realized the two men were saving some of their own people after bouts of bloody street violence.

The two EMTs even took shots, the verbal kind, from their own colleagues, some of whom saw them as competitors. Both men became the target of cruel jokes, harassment, and rumors that they were incompetent. Rocky knew there was only one way to silence the detractors - he and Joe had to transform their shoe-string operation into a full-fledged, well-trained unit that could capably answer every call and save every life possible.

To accomplish that transformation, Rocky needed a crew of volunteers, an authentic "corps." To build his corps, he drew from the community. Bed-Stuy was typical of many other inner-city communities. Within Bed-Stuy there were 250 crack houses, hundreds of drug dealers and prostitutes on the streets, a large population of homeless persons and teenage dropouts, and as many residents on welfare as blue-collar wage-earners. Many of the residents weren't convinced a fledgling volunteer corps could provide them with anything they couldn't already get by dialing 911.

So Rocky and Joe blanketed the neighborhood with flyers and explained their new service to anyone who would listen. As residents saw the duo rushing to emergencies, on foot or by car, saving their neighbors and loved ones who might otherwise have died, they began to see the light.

Rocky got his volunteers from among recovering alcoholics, the unemployed, even drug dealers trying to go straight. Within months, Rocky and Joe had drafted dozens of young people and were training them to rescue others. After receiving training in first aid and CPR, the volunteers responded to calls. In the process, many of the volunteers learned skills, found a purpose in life, and rescued themselves from despair. Some went on to become nurses and doctors. Rocky wasn't just saving the dying anymore - he was also saving the living.

Eventually, the Daily News ran a story about the "guys running around the neighborhood with oxygen tanks on their backs." A philanthropist read the story and donated an old ambulance to the cause. At last, Rocky had his ambulance corps. On the first day with the ambulance, the corps arrived first at the scene of a fire and rescued ten people from a burning building. The next day, they delivered a baby. Time after time, Rocky, Joe, and the volunteers were the first on the scene, and even Rocky's critics in the city's Emergency Medical Service began to see their value.

Donations and grants from foundations began to pour in. A group of people from Montana wrote, "We're a bunch of rednecks up here, but we're inspired by what you're doing and we want to help." When times were bad and funding was low, Rocky found other ways to come up with money. He sold car washes and solicited donations in the streets. He would do anything to pay the rent, train the volunteers, and buy supplies - anything to save lives.

Today, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps, the first minority-run ambulance corps in the nation, has 350 volunteers. The organization responds to 300 emergency calls a month - calls from grateful police, understaffed city emergency services, and citizens who know they can count on fast, reliable service.

It is not usually possible to calculate the value of imagination and the creative spirit, but it is in the case of Rocky Robinson and his partner, Joe Perez. The value is twenty-six minutes - the time that makes the difference between life and death in a community of abandoned buildings and abandoned souls.

James "Rocky" Robinson said:
"I don't let obstacles get me down. I focus on how to overcome them. You can work around any obstacle by going under it if it's too high, going over it if it's too low. There's always a way!"

Excerpted from 'Unstoppable'

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Last Update: June 21, 2018