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A West Oakland hero

March 10, 2011

by Joseph Debro

The Prescott Joseph Center’s breathmobile is in demand in neighborhoods with high asthma rates all over the Bay Area.
There is a man working in West Oakland with whom my wife and I went to high school and college. His name is Washington (Bob) Burns. He is a retired pathologist. Unlike most retired doctors, he has spent the past 15 years trying to aid those who have been dealt a hand of poverty and desperation.

Bob is the much decorated, unpaid executive director of the Prescott Joseph Center for community enhancement. He works more than 40 hours per week at the center. He not only raises money for the center, but he donates money to the center.

He has recruited members for his board, many of whom are McClymonds and West Oakland graduates, including Dr. Henry Lloyd Edington, a world famous orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Edington graduated from both Prescott and Mac. Bob is a Tech graduate.

Bob got started at PJC by trying to bring art and culture to those who have been without. His brother Charles was the parish priest and ran the center before him. Bob remembered growing up in Mississippi and in West Oakland, where he was denied both art and culture.

He discovered that what he wanted to do did not treat the whole person. He discovered that a person, who is unemployed, hungry or ill has little interest in art or culture. He was forced by this reality to reset his priorities.

Bob began to raise and contribute money to deliver a new message. Prescott Joseph formed partnerships with existing organizations in West Oakland. It partnered with the San Francisco Foundation, the County of Alameda, the University of California, the West Oakland representative to the Oakland School Board, the Air Quality Board, the Port of Oakland and others.

Out of these partnerships came a new vehicle that now delivers several new programs, including a food bank. Perhaps the most notable program is the portable asthma clinic. This mobile unit is called the breathmobile. Its mission is to call on schools in West Oakland, diagnose and treat those children who are afflicted with asthma.

The recognition of the effectiveness for this breathmobile has exploded. Every school district in the Bay Area wants this service.

While I have not been impressed with our elected leaders, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, earmarked $200,000 to help pay for the building of the first breathmobile. The Bay Area Air Quality Board and the Port of Oakland have all made contributions. The demand for this service has spread to Hunters Point, West Contra Costa County and other bad air zones. Political support for this cost saving, health enhancing mobile asthma clinic has grown.

Prescott Joseph has asked the University of California to develop a metric for estimating how much money the breathmobile saves the school district and the county hospital.

Bob brought this idea to Northern California and made it a part of the Prescott Joseph Center. The demand is so great the center is embarking on a $25 million fundraising campaign. The center proposes to build several more breathmobiles and serve many more poor students who are affected by where they live.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a McClymonds graduate and a proud member of this board of directors. Along with Drs. Eddington and Burns, I am also a UC Berkeley alum.

Joseph Debro is president of Bay Area Black Builders, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors, a general engineering contractor and a bio-chemical engineer. He can be reached at transbay@netzero.com.

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