OAKLAND - Not long ago, Ernesto Diaz was locked up at the Camp Sweeney juvenile detention facility on felony assault charges, deemed a "menace to society." Carl Bolds almost joined him there on many occasions during his life as an East Oakland "street hustler."
Now, both are employed at local ambulance companies, and on the verge of becoming certified emergency medical technicians.
Bolds, 21, of Oakland, plans to become a firefighter. Diaz, 18, of Berkeley, dreams of medical school. The only thing both men want to do now, they say, is help.
In a special ceremony earlier this month, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors honored the pair, who have made a remarkable journey in a very short time.
A staff of volunteer EMTs, life coach specialists and mental health professionals from Alameda County public health is helping them achieve their goals. Diaz and Bolds are both beneficiaries of Bay EMT, a unique program that targets at-risk men ages 18 to 24, most of whom have had run-ins with the law, and diverts them to a vocational program that channels them into the health care field. The organization hopes to increase diversity in the health care industry and in the process help young men on the brink of self-destruction. Best of all, it's free.
Bay EMT offers two five-month courses each year, one in June and another in January. Each session is open to about 30 students. If they complete the course successfully, students then are eligible to take the National Registry Exam, which qualifies them to work as EMTs in California and several other states. Since the program began in 2002, nearly 200 students have gone on to successful medical and firefighting careers, often helping the same residents they may have terrorized, robbed or hurt previously as gang members or thugs.
"Most of these kids come up in a gang culture or a drug culture," said Michael Gibson, the Director of Alameda County's emergency medical corps and a former resident of Camp Sweeney himself. "We have to realign them with a more positive culture, with values that are more constructive."
Many of the young men, Gibson said, are deeply traumatized by violence, drug abuse, and the crippling absence of parental guidance and authority.
Gibson, who was once held in solitary confinement at Camp Sweeney for nearly a year for attempted murder of a police officer, knows firsthand what most of the young men have gone through. His mother was a crack addict, and he was forced to start selling drugs when he was 12 to pay the family's bills. Now he helps other at-risk youths and young men channel their rage into something more positive. "I get them when they're angry, full of rage, and I stay with them every step of the way."
Diaz was a classic example when he entered Camp Sweeney; a year later, his transformation is remarkable to those who have watched him grow. Raised in a poor family in Berkeley, Diaz joined a gang, and before long had adopted the life of the streets. In his last two years of high school, he went to juvenile detention eight times. It was during his last stint that Gibson and other staff members stepped in.
Diaz took a First Responder medical course and, to his great surprise, he excelled.
"I'd never been the guy in class who had the answer," he said. "I'd never felt like that before, like I had something to look forward to."
Within months, he had completed the course, started teaching CPR to new students, and was on the way to getting his juvenile record sealed. Last week, a judge granted him his wish. Next month he will take the national exam and, his teachers say, probably will ace it.
"He is living proof that it can be done," said Wellington Jackson, Bay EMT's program director and a firefighter.
Jackson's position is volunteer, and he says it gives meaning to his life and purpose to his energies.
Much of those energies go toward helping people such as Bolds, who still lives in the East Oakland house where, as a 14-year-old boy, he witnessed an execution-style "hit" in the street outside his house. By his teenage years, he was robbing people on the street and beating them up.
He first joined Bay EMT because it was free, and also to offset a pending felony assault conviction. However, he took to it immediately. He's currently working for American Medical Response and said he won't stop working until he's a firefighter and can help others.
"There's not gonna be anything out there I haven't seen before," said a grinning Bolds. "The only difference is that I'll be on the other side where I can help people."
Jackson said his larger purpose is to train not just EMTs but to fashion conscientious, civic-minded citizens. He peppers his EMT exams with extra-credit social studies questions about American history, the Civil Rights Movement and the Constitution. "What are your First Amendment rights?" he asks. "What are the three branches of government?"
Jackson hammers home the message that the most important things the young men will learn are how to become better human beings. A stolen half an hour here or there can make a huge difference, he said.
"This is basic social studies stuff," he said. "But that's also why they're here -- they think it's not too late."
However, Jackson is the first to acknowledge that when he first sees them, many fulfill the stereotyped image of leeches on society, rather than contributors to it. "Look at Oakland," he said. "It's evident they're not doing much."
To his surprise, when he began telling the young men in his classroom that society often viewed them as worthless, they quickly get angered -- but then very often agreed. "I don't do much for the community," they would tell him.
So Jackson immediately got to work. He began taking qualified students to health fairs and job expos. There, the students took blood pressure screenings and began to develop their medical skills. He taught them how to help. In the process, another lifestyle began to take hold. The goal, he said, is to immerse them so completely in the language and ethos of the medical world that it replaces the violent world of the streets they're trying to leave behind.
"They get sucked into it," he said. "When all your friends and brothers are doing this, you'll do it, too. It's the same way you get sucked into the street."
Bay EMT has a 37 percent success rate, roughly on par with the national average and in line with county expectations. Some of the young men drop out early because their reading or math skills are too rudimentary for the class. Others join simply to make a faster break from juvenile hall. For those who stay and finish, it's well worth it. All of the 24 Bay EMT teaching staff were once students there, and many of them, like Diaz, passed through the halls of Camp Sweeney.
For Diaz and Bolds, the program may have saved their lives.
"Everybody else sees the change and is so proud, and I've never felt that way before," said Diaz. "I'll be able to help my mom out, and I won't have to ask for anything anymore. It's like I walked out of one world and into the next. I'm happy."
Bolds, who has lost four close family members to shooting violence, remembers when he was 9 and watched as street thugs robbed an older woman of her purse outside his front door.
"I just want to be one of the people that helps," he said, "That's all I want, to help."