From tough neighborhoods to life-saving health careers

May 18, 2017

I’m with emergency responders Nicolas Kinney and Chris Channell in a green and white Paramedics Plus ambulance racing to a 911 call in Fremont. We bump over train tracks and swerve through mid-afternoon traffic.

Kinney is a 25-year-old emergency medical technician, or EMT. He’s in the passenger seat navigating. He punches in a hip hop track and starts bouncing to the booming bass.

The radio dispatcher has an update: the patient isn’t in the throes of a heart attack after all. She’s suffering from an "altered level of consciousness," which basically means she’s confused and disoriented.

“Maybe heart attack, maybe stroke, maybe hypoglycemia,” Kinney says. “It could be sepsis. So that's what we got to figure out."

The way Kinney is rattling off possible diagnoses, it's hard to imagine that a little over two years ago you might have encountered him whipping up lattes and Frappuccinos at Starbucks.

“I had a man bun and I looked like a samurai warrior,” he says.

Before that he was growing up in North Richmond, in a neighborhood where it was all too common for warring gangs to have shoot-outs on the street.

“I had friends—rest in peace—that didn't make it,” Kinney says .

In 2014, Kinney’s life took a dramatic turn. He lopped off the man-bun and enrolled in a 5-month program that trains young men of color to become emergency medical technicians. EMTs work with paramedics to provide medical care in the field during an emergency.

“It's like I'm the hands and the feet in the community, you know: What do you need? I got you—you need warmth, you need fluids, you're dehydrated? Whatever you need, we're here,” he says.

Training Ground

It began for Kinney as it does for all new recruits: at the EMS Corps academy in San Leandro. In a spare conference room, 11 men dressed in navy t-shirts with the EMS Corps logo are sitting at long tables arranged in a big rectangle. Most are African-American and Latino. Each one has a journal open in front of him. They’re intensely focused on their teacher, life coach Dr. Valerie Street.

“How can you match your gifts and talents with one of the world's greatest needs? One. Pick one,” Street says.

“The one that I’m really working on is a teacher,” says Nequwan Taylor. “I’m a huge role model to everyone under me.”

Taylor, at 18, is the youngest recruit in the room. He grew up in a housing project near the Oakland Coliseum BART that generates more than its share of 911 calls. He wants to be a nurse.

“I want to be the role model that they don’t see on the TV, that they don’t see on social media, that they don’t see on the internet,” he says.

As the class goes on, Street takes the recruits on what she calls a 26-step roadmap to manhood.

“It takes them on a journey of discovery of who they are—what their strengths are and what they value most in this life,” she says. “Once that is nailed down, then they don't have doubts. They're not in the streets looking for an identity.”

According to EMS Corps officials, 167 men have graduated since 2012. They are working as EMTs at private ambulance companies, on fire department rigs, as counselors at detox centers and as community outreach workers.

“There's so many different careers they can go into,” Street says. 

From Hardship to Opportunity

Michael Gibson is EMS Corps’ executive director. He says the program started at Camp Sweeney. EMS corps still recruits heavily from the youth detention center in San Leandro.

“I look for the young man who’s had some tragedy in his life and some hardships and just needs an opportunity,” Gibson says.

That would be someone just like his younger self.

“My first arrest was at age 11. Then 12 [for] carrying guns, running the streets selling drugs,” Gibson says. “Then as I got older I got into more serious charges, to where I ended up in the California Youth Authority—for three-and-a-half years I served out of an eight-year sentence.”

Overall, about 30 percent of recruits have had some kind of contact with the criminal justice system. They aren’t eligible if they have more than two misdemeanors or two felonies on the record, because that disqualifies them from taking the state exam for EMT certification. Gibson says he tries to show the recruits that they don’t have to be defined by the past.

"I use a lot of my own stories and lessons I learned in life to show young men ... I've been there—what you're going through. But I also have a blueprint for success that's worked for me and countless other young men who've been through some things. I can show you the way if you are willing to listen."

Career Pathways

In order to apply, recruits must be 18 to 26 years old and have a high school diploma. They earn a $1,000 per month stipend.

“I had finished high school and I really didn’t have any direction,” says Philip Jimenez, 21, from San Leandro. “But I knew deep down that I wanted to help people. So I feel like this EMS program is definitely a blessing from God. My plan is to get an EMT certification, work as an EMT, eventually progress into being a paramedic and from being a paramedic I plan on becoming a doctor."

Back in the ambulance, Kinney and his partner are transporting their patient to Washington Hospital in Fremont. They’re an unusual team. Kinney is biracial with urban swagger. Channell is white and grew up in Moraga in the suburbs. Most ambulance crews are all white. Channell says that can be a handicap on calls to communities of color.

“When we pick up a patient in Oakland, you’ll see Kinney’s demeanor totally change and totally adapt to that style. I don’t have that, I grew up in Moraga,” he says. “ Some of the language I won’t understand what the patient is talking about. But having him on scene, he really knows how to get the patients to smile. “

This story originally aired in August of 2016.