By Maitefa Angaza
Commander James “Rocky” Robinson joined the ancestors on Friday, September 27th at age 79, and the gratitude of thousands went with him. He was the caring and determined visionary who founded the Bed-Stuy Volunteer Ambulance Corps, thereby easing minds and saving lives in his community for over 30 years. Robinson first answered the call to serve while working as part of an ambulance team for Woodhull Hospital after returning home from the Army. A smart and devoted paramedic, he rose to the rank of captain long before retiring from the FDNY. Up close, however, he was painfully aware of the shortfalls in the system as it worked in his neighborhood. There were not enough ambulances to meet the great need and response times were slow.
Then, when his niece was hit by a car and died after waiting a half-hour for an ambulance, he and his friend, Specialist Joe Perez, decided they had the skills and the imperative to provide a better option. In 1988 they took over an abandoned property on Greene Avenue at Marcus Garvey Blvd. and the Ambulance Corps was born. The current location is across the street from that original location.
At a BSVAC reunion event in 2013, Perez recalled what it was like. “Back then, if you got shot or stabbed in Bed-Stuy, you’d be watching your life spill into the gutter,” he said. “We lowered the response time to four minutes flat, which became a national standard.”
Those early days were challenging and some emergency calls were answered on bikes, or even running on foot with medical supplies. But Robinson was tougher than the times and tender enough to offer a second chance to those in need. He trained recovering substance abusers to come to their neighbors’ rescue. Today, trainees come from all walks of life, but the primary focus remains on giving opportunities to neighborhood residents who need it.
They transform into teams that answer about 400 emergency calls each month in an average of four minutes. BSVAC has been credited with saving many lives and the skills Robinson provided them allowed many to later earn a living working as EMTs for the city and as doctors, nurses and physician’s assistants. Robinson’s family members have worked as volunteers and his son, Antoine Robinson, had taken over the reins.
Good works notwithstanding, the Corps faced ongoing financial crises. But if a patient being taken to the hospital does not have medical insurance, BSVAC won’t charge for the ride. Robinson kept his word that this would not stop him from keeping the doors open by any means necessary. Most of his pension income over the last decade has been devoted to keeping the lights on and the vehicles gassed up.
Despite the pinch, Robinson took a second mortgage on his home to send Corps members and supplies to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The BSVAC was the first medical support team that arrived there. They helped save lives; delivered dozens of babies and brought their rescue dog, who sniffed out a man trapped down a hole. They would later return to Haiti and assisted in other locales as well, leaving behind residents trained in basic CPR.
In 2016, some relief was provided via $142,000 from the New York City Council, championed by Council member Robert Cornegy, with contributions from other Council persons as well. Much of it went to pay debts accrued during decades of lean times. However, if financial support has not been consistently forthcoming, the BSVAC and its founder received hundreds of awards. Robinson’s been named the Robin Hood Foundation Hero of the Year, received former President George W. Bush’s Points of Light Award, the New York City Hero Award and was chosen to run the torch through the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant for the 2000 Olympics.
Robinson said in a Vice News video interview five years ago: “I believe we are all put here for a purpose. And my purpose is to save lives and to change lives.” He is survived by his wife Vernice Robinson, his many children and the thousands of EMTs he trained and mentored.