In Bed-Stuy, a Volunteer Ambulance Corps Struggles to Hang On

Thirty years ago, James Robinson had just emerged from the Nostrand Avenue subway station when a neighbor told him his 7-year-old niece had been hit by a car nearby. He rushed into the crowd of people surrounding her and jumped into the ambulance with her.

His niece, Cynthia Lomax, was surrounded by modern life-saving equipment, Mr. Robinson said, but, “The attendant didn’t even know how to turn on the oxygen.” Before the ambulance reached the hospital, she was dead, he said.

That began Mr. Robinson’s effort to bring emergency care to Bedford-Stuyvesant. In 1988, Mr. Robinson and a partner, Joe Perez, founded the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps, also known as the Bed-Stuy Vollies, to serve the neglected neighborhood.

The Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corp is on the corner of Marcus Garvey Boulevard and Greene Avenue in Brooklyn. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute
Using a patient simulation mannequin, Alonzo Culbert, 30, practices CPR. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute
Ebony Copeland, 31, prepares the gurney with a new sheet for the next patient. The hospital often shares supplies like sheets, bags and oxygen tanks with the ambulance corps. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

Clockwise from top: The Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps operates out of a trailer in a lot at Marcus Garvey Boulevard and Greene Avenue; Ebony Copeland prepares a gurney; Alonzo Culbert practices CPR. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

“As I was driving throughout the city, no matter where I went, I always remembered that the people in my hood was being disserviced,” Mr. Robinson said.

For years, the service was a vital part of the emergency response system, showing up at the scenes of the many shootings and health emergencies. But in recent years, the crime rate has gone down. There are fewer 911 calls overall and the demand for the Vollies has diminished.

The corps struggles to stay ahead of its bills. Only one of the three ambulances runs, and the Vollies are always searching for funds to keep that one operating; even with a volunteer staff, it costs about $250,000 to keep it supplied and its gas tank full.

Still, said Mr. Robinson, “I’ll retire the day I die.”

The service operates out of a trailer with a leaky roof on the corner of Marcus Garvey Boulevard and Green Avenue. The lot is littered with desk chairs, tables, tarps and training equipment and encompassed by red, white and blue metal fence. There, Mr. Robinson, now 76, focuses on offering classes to train his recruits for the Emergency Medical Services certification exam.

Once a chronic drug user, Mr. Robinson took classes in emergency medical response at Long Island University after his niece’s death. “Even though I wasn’t trained, I wanted to be trained,” he said.

Many mornings, trainees line up in front of the trailer, waiting for Mr. Robinson, known as Rocky, to give them the plan for the day. They raise their hands in a stiff salute as he rolls forward in his wheelchair.

“Who are we?” he shouts.

“Family,” the cadets respond in unison.

The operation runs whenever volunteers are available and the ambulance is “at 800,” or fully stocked with medical equipment. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute
Captain and assistant instructor Atma Degeyndt, a recent graduate of Commander James Robinson's operation, has been with Bed-Stuy for about a year. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute
Mr. Robinson is legally blind. The print on his phone is fairly large, and he often struggles to read it. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

Clockwise from top: The operation runs whenever volunteers are available; Mr. Robinson in his office; Atma Degeyndt, a captain and assistant instructor, has been with Bed-Stuy for about a year. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

More than 1,000 students have passed through his program. They quickly move on, he said, to become police officers, firefighters, doctors or paramedics. “Eventually they graduate and they don’t come back,” he said. “I don’t get mad, because they graduated.”

Students pay $500 for the three-month program. There are government subsidies for those who cannot afford the classes, as long as they pass the state exam. Mr. Robinson said that the actual cost of running the classes can be as much as $1,500 per student, and that many students slip through without paying him the full $500. Though there are occasional donations, usually Mr. Robinson foots the bill.

Mr. Robinson has needed emergency medical care himself. In 1992 he went into cardiac arrest. The fire department emergency team that responded included several people he had helped train.

Mr. Degeyndt, left, and Ebony Copeland, right, treat a patient who was hit by a car on Fulton Street. Mr. Degeyndt is a recent graduate of the Bedford Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Ms. Copeland is a current student. The Corps takes pride in their students real time experience in the field Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute
Jakeem McKenzie, 24, left, assists Mr. Degeyndt, right, while he loads a patient into their ambulance. The patient had suffered a mild heart attack. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute
Atma Degeyndt, 38, right, records information after Officer Yanaris Mark, left, was kicked by a suspect. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

Clockwise from top left: Mr. Degeyndt, left, and Ebony Copeland, right, treat a patient who was hit by a car on Fulton Street; Officer Yanaris Mark, left, being treated after she was kicked by a suspect; Jakeem McKenzie, left, assists Mr. Degeyndt while he loads a patient into their ambulance. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

At the emergency room, he was treated by Dr. Timothy Sutton, a graduate of the first E.M.T. class he had hosted. After nine years of dialysis he needed a kidney transplant. The donor was Reggie Crawford, another of his students.

“They refused to let ‘the commander’ die,” he said.

“What do we do?” Mr. Robinson shouts from his wheelchair.

“Save lives,” the cadets respond.

Mr. Robinson later explained what keeps him going.

“There ain’t no greater high than saving a life,” he said.