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Pittsburgh’s Freedom House program continues legacy of diversity in EMS

The program takes its name from the first-ever ambulance service composed of primarily Black paramedics


Photo/University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

By Hanna Webster
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Juggling three little ones and online school, Michelle Skinner wanted more of a challenge.

The 28-year-old living in Lincoln has three kids, aged 2 to 10, and attends school online for early childhood education through Pima Community College. She saw information about the Freedom House program — a six-week course through UPMC that teaches emergency medical technician basics to Black students — on Facebook and was intrigued. Long dreaming of becoming a nurse, she had tried — without success — to become a patient-care technician at UPMC for years.

“I thought, ‘I have nothing else to do, so let me give this a try,’” she recalled on Friday, shortly after joining 13 other students in a graduation ceremony for the latest Freedom House cohort at the McKeesport Community LIFE Center.

Graduates, who are exposed to various career paths in health care, including patient care technician, EMT and medical assistant, are guaranteed at least one interview opportunity for a healthcare-related job at UPMC.

Freedom House on April 12 also celebrated its third anniversary in Allegheny County.

The program takes its moniker from the first-ever ambulance service run by EMTs with more training than basic first aid, which originated in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1967 and was composed of primarily Black paramedics.

[RELATED: ‘Freedom House 2.0' offers EMS training for those in disadvantaged communities]

The Freedom House program serves to continue a legacy of promoting diversity in medicine, and that legacy is growing: In February, the city of Pittsburgh announced the 12-week Freedom House EMT Training Academy.

“Right now, there is a lack of diversity in not only EMS but in the medical field throughout the country,” said John Moon, who was part of the Freedom House Ambulance Service in the early 1970s, and attended Friday’s graduation. “EMS could help solve that dilemma.”

Just 10% of U.S. medical school enrollees in the 2023 — 2024 school year were Black, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. A 2022 study showed that as of 2019, Black EMTs made up 8% of the EMT workforce and 5% of all paramedics.

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Mr. Moon, who lives in Brighton Heights and was raised in the Hill District, attended the recent ceremony to send well wishes to the students, who came to shake his hand and pose with their diplomas in front of a 1974 photograph of the Freedom House staff, which included Mr. Moon, stoic in the center of the black-and-white image.

About six years ago, Mr. Moon met with UPMC staff to plan furthering Freedom House’s legacy of diversity.

“What this program does is all part of my vision to keep the history of EMS alive,” he said.

He first saw Freedom House paramedics decades ago while working as a hospital orderly — today’s version of a nursing assistant — as two paramedics came into a hospital room he was working in.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off them,” he said. “There was something about how they commanded the space.”

The next day, he went to the Yellow Pages to locate the Freedom House office and soon went in and asked for a job.

“They asked me, ‘If I showed you a picture of a heart, could you diagram its circulatory system? How about a lung?’” he recalled.

Mr. Moon could not. They sent him on his way, deeming him unqualified for the position.

“That unleashed a set of motivators in me that still exists today,” he said. After being rejected, he attended a 13-week course with the North Park Fire Academy, he said, then returned to Freedom House, where he was hired on the spot. He stayed with the ambulance service for about a year and a half, until it was disbanded in 1975. Then he worked at Pittsburgh EMS until he retired in 2009.

[RELATED: How Pittsburgh’s ‘Freedom House’ shaped modern EMS systems]

Mr. Moon said as a Black man, he faced discrimination in his field. He noticed other paramedics who responded to calls with handcuffs attached to their trucks, and who were convinced to carry weapons — thinking urban Pittsburgh was the most dangerous place they could be.

“I worked to change paramedics’ mindsets about preconceived notions,” he said.

He designed the first diversity recruitment training program for Pittsburgh EMS and hired Amera Gilchrist as an EMT 25 years ago; she is now the first Black woman deputy chief in the history of Pittsburgh’s Bureau of EMS.

“She’s my crowning moment of Pittsburgh EMS,” Mr. Moon said. “She’s the reason why I can look back and smile, and say everything I went through was all worth it.”

After Freedom House helped the students redo their resumes, Michelle Skinner got into her preferred UPMC program within a week. She’ll be working at UPMC Mercy as a patient care technician.

Ms. Skinner said she was inspired by her great-grandmother, who was a teacher all her life. Before Freedom House, she worked with kids who had autism.

“Some kids don’t get that help at home, and that made me want to do it more,” she said. “This is my stepping stone to becoming a nurse — I always wanted to be a nurse.”

Her children, Bailee Roberts, 10, Karter-Ann Skinner, 7 and Messiah Skinner, 2, sat on the floor of the Community LIFE Center eating macaroni and cheese after the ceremony and wearing matching shirts that read, “My mommy did it, and she did it for me.”

“When she’s a nurse, she can save us,” said Bailee.

Mr. Moon said a lot of work still needs to be done to promote diversity and equity in the medical field, but that the Freedom House program is “proof” that it pays off to invest in the community.

[RELATED: How Pittsburgh’s ‘Freedom House’ shaped modern EMS systems]

The six-week program has expanded, with its inaugural Erie installment leading to a graduation of nine students on April 19. Online applications for Westmoreland County residents are already open for a program expected to run from May 6 through June 14. The application states that the Allegheny County summer cohort is already full.

Ms. Skinner was eager to start working at UPMC Mercy. Sitting amongst her fellow grads clad in purple robes, Freedom House project manager Trevor Mathey encouraged her and her cohort to “take this knowledge, keep an open mind, and be curious.”

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