CORONA — A local volunteer ambulance corps that was bilked out of more than $300,000 by a group of former members has found a lifesaver in a community member dedicated to restoring the group to its former glory.
The Corona Community Ambulance Corps has been working in the neighborhood since 1960 from their headquarters on 47th Avenue, responding to emergencies and assisting city agencies with rescue work.
In 2013, three board members were arrested for allegedly stealing $310,000 from the nonprofit, padding their pockets with money earned by working events at nearby Citi Field and other places and using it for trips, according to the Attorney General's office.
"Back then, it seemed all to be fine and dandy, but apparently it was all lies," said Gonzalo de Jesus, 28, who joined in 2008. "There was a two- to three-year period where we thought we would close."
The group went broke, and couldn't pay the mortgage on its building, members said.
Membership also declined, and the group eventually lost major contracts including Citi Field and St. John's University.
"It was a ship without a captain, and the untrained sailors became trained by rough waters," said Brian Guerra, 24, who works as an EMT at New York Hospital, Queens and joined the Corps in 2011.
In April, a real estate agent contacted a well-known community member, Al Perna, 53, who owns a construction company, about possibly buying the building.
He ended up saving the group instead.
"I went to see this property, and I'm looking at the [real estate agent,] and I went, 'Wait a minute. This is the community's property, you can't sell this,'" he said.
"I said you know what? Take it off the market. Because this is not going to sale."
Perna, who grew up in Corona, first worked out a new mortgage payment during a series of meetings.
"Finally we got squared away," he said.
A member of Community Board 4 and the 110th Precinct Community Council, he's hosted community Halloween and Christmas parties and runs the Perna Foundation for Kids charity.
He also remembered visiting the Corona Community Ambulance Corps' clambakes as a kid, and recalled its heyday.
"Since Al came in, I've noticed the changes," Guerra said.
One of the biggest was the increase in membership, which had dwindled to about 15 members from about 75 before the scandal. It now stands around 40.
The group also went on 40 runs in May, an increase.
Perna's helping recruit more EMTs and even taking the certification classes to become a trained medic himself.
"It's been a real struggle, trying to get back on good people's side," Perna said.
With his help, they're beginning to rebuild trust in the community by respond to and throwing events, like an upcoming barbecue on Aug. 23.
They also plan to dispatch EMTs to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on bicycle to report quickly to incidents in the park.
"We rebuild trust where we can," Guerra said.
For Perna, the most important thing the Corps can do is get back to work in Corona.
"I give to the community — so this is what you have to do to make people realize that there are good people out there," he said.