James “Rocky” Robinson, the founding member of the Bedford-Stuyvesant volunteer ambulance corps, died Friday. He was 79.
Robinson, a Bed-Stuy resident, founded the volunteer ambulance corps at the corner of Marcus Garvey Blvd. and Greene Ave. in 1988 after his niece was hit by a car.
Robinson waited for an ambulance to arrive for over a half hour, all the while watching the girl’s condition deteriorate. His niece ultimately died of her injuries — and the tragedy pushed Robinson to do something to help his entire community so no other family would find itself in a similar place.
“That was it. That was the last straw for him,” said his son, FDNY paramedic Antoine Robinson. Robinson, 34, now runs his father’s passion project, helping people to receive certification necessary to become an EMT.
Rocky Robinson founded the volunteer ambulance organization at the height of the city’s crack epidemic. When he wasn’t working as a city EMT with the FDNY’s Emergency Medical Service, Robinson and two colleagues listened in on 911 calls and biked to the locations — with a backpack full of medical supplies in tow.
Robinson and his team began recruiting volunteers from the neighborhood, many of whom were recovering substance abusers.
“He was giving them the training they needed to join NYC EMS. It pretty much exploded from there," his son said before a vigil outside the ambulance corps headquarters Friday evening.
After gaining both traction in the community and monetary contributions, Robinson moved the organization from a small office space to a derelict corner lot across the street where dealers convened to peddle drugs. Robinson and his team built a trailer on the land, which would ultimately be replaced with an updated version in 2008.
“He said, ‘If they can sell death and destruction from this corner, why can’t we change peoples lives on this corner?’” according to his son.
Robinson grew up blocks from BSVAC headquarters, and in his teens he attracted a loyal following in the neighborhood by playing records in local parks.
“I was one of the first rappers,” he told the Daily News in a 2010 article about BSVAC.
Robinson served in the U.S. Army, then returned to Brooklyn and got a job as an ambulance driver at Woodhull Hospital. It was there that he began to wake up to the dire need for more ambulances in some city neighborhoods -- and the tragic consequences of slow response times, as he witnessed with his niece’s death.
After getting BSVAC started with his friend Victor Perez, Robinson struggled perpetually to finance his operations —often hanging on by a thread. Generous Daily News readers sent support and even secured donated ambulances after the paper wrote about the early days of BSVAC. In 2008, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity did a segment on the volunteer corps which raised $250,000 for Robinson’s organization.
Robinson’s health began to suffer in 2010 when his kidneys failed. An organ donation from one of his 19 children saved his life back then, but over this summer Robinson’s condition worsened, his family said. In June he had the first of several heart attacks and his kidneys once again began to fail.
The “commander” Bedford-Stuyvesant volunteer ambulance corps died surrounded by family on Friday, but his tremendous legacy survives him, his relatives said.
“He did a lot and made the people realize that there’s more to taking care of people than ignoring him,” his sister, Catherine Brown, said at his vigil. “He helped a lot of people get back their lives. He turned a lot of them away from drugs. If you didn’t have the money he would help you. He was an amazing man.”