Growing up as a third-generation Armenian in Southern California, Armenian culture was always a part of Jamie Kolar’s family and something that she wanted to learn more about. With a maternal grandmother of Armenian descent born and raised in Fresno, family reunions took place there while growing up, and still do. In May 2013, just months shy of her 30th birthday, Kolar took a bold step in her quest to learn more about her heritage. The medically trained firefighter paramedic at the Los Angeles County Fire Department joined Birthright Armenia, and boarded a plane to her ancestral homeland to carry out volunteer service through the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC).
“When I applied to volunteer in Armenia I had a lengthy list of goals and motivations for my five-week trip, which included learning Armenian so that I could continue to use it after returning home to better serve the Armenians of the Los Angeles community, ” she explains. “But within my first 24 hours upon arriving there, I clearly knew that I would want to stay longer than just 5 weeks,” admits Kolar. As she started her volunteer work conducting training at the Ministry of Emergency Situations, she met many challenges and rewarding experiences.
“The common threads in all of my work placements in Armenia were the lack of vital equipment, the very resourceful use of the equipment that they did have, and their strong desire to absorb new information. Coming from one of the highest trained fire departments in the world, in a city where there is no end to the supply of medical equipment, it is easy for me to take for granted the abundance of both training and equipment available. For example, what we consider disposable in the U.S. is carefully cleaned and repaired in Armenia for continued use,” she reports. It was in Gyumri that Kolar got a much clearer understanding of the current state of emergency medical services in Armenia.
Kolar found that most of the funding and donated equipment is funneled to Yerevan, leaving Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri operating ambulances with empty shelves and little vital trauma equipment. “Given the treacherous roads and many accidents that occur in the surrounding area, I was specifically asked by the doctor in charge of the ambulance to teach a course on medical treatment for car accident victims. I was excited to share my knowledge. And the ambulance staff, many coming in on their own time-off duty, was eager to learn. I quickly discovered that the ambulance company didn’t have a spinal immobilization board, something that is carried as standard equipment on every ambulance in the U.S. On further investigation I also found that they were lacking many important basic trauma medical supplies…[and] I knew we had surplus of used equipment in the U.S. Many of the larger ambulance companies and fire departments in the U.S. will purchase the newest model of equipment, letting the used equipment pile up in storage and held as back-up equipment. When the room becomes full, the used equipment is donated to a place where it can be used. Through the contacts I was making in Armenia and my career in Los Angeles, I knew that I could be the bridge between the need for medical equipment in Armenia and the surplus that is waiting in the United States.”
Her role seemed clear-cut at this point of discovery. Experiencing all of the above first-hand made Kolar further driven to engage. After all, helping others has always been the driving motivation behind her becoming a paramedic. “Granted with a one-year leave of absence from my job, I moved to Armenia and set up a non-profit called Aid to Armenia (www.AidToArmenia.com). With the help of financial donations I was able to open up my outreach to more than just the shipment of medical equipment and training for the ambulance personnel. I now have a program to teach cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid to the general public, and to gift a sterile first aid kit to village families so that they can properly and effectively use the training they receive,” Kolar explains.
“In my remaining time while I am living here in Armenia, I hope to build a strong foundation for Aid to Armenia and establish a successful network, so the organization can continue its vital mission in the years to come. I am so thankful to Birthright Armenia to have gotten a chance to come to my homeland and volunteer… But the real satisfaction came when one day, while doing volunteer work, I stopped for a minute to look around at my surroundings, [and] suddenly it sunk in that no one else that I knew of was waiting to step into this role in my absence, and it hit me: My being here in Armenia really matters.”