At the start of ninth grade at Hopewell Valley Central High School, Olivia Obst was too shy to raise her hand in class. Then, on a whim at age 16, she volunteered with Hopewell Fire Department & Emergency Medical Unit.
She became a junior member, then an EMT, then a firefighter. Just out of high school, Olivia helped save the life of one of her Hopewell Valley neighbors, and went on to be named both Fire Fighter and EMT of the Year.
Her experiences – from the training, to being part of a tight-knit team, to the adrenaline of helping others in emergency situations – changed Olivia forever.
“The firehouse is really where my life started six years ago,” said Olivia, who is now 22 and recently completed her nursing degree at Thomas Jefferson University and passed her boards. “It taught me that I can go out and achieve more things than I ever thought. I made life-long friendships, and gained confidence. And it has guided me to become a more caring and generous person.”
The Volunteer Decision
At 15, Olivia was taking high school courses in architecture, certain she would one day be an architect or designer.
A good friend volunteered at a neighboring fire company, and just after her 16th birthday, Olivia decided to look into volunteering at Hopewell and became a junior member. Olivia participated in every training session and drill she could, and assisted the ambulance crew and firefighters on calls and around the station. By age 17, she was a certified EMT and fit volunteer emergency response into her life alongside the college classes she began taking during her senior year of high school.
Then Olivia decided she wanted to be a firefighter, too. She graduated from high school and fire school within a month from each other.
Olivia and her mentor, Hopewell Firefighter Chris Jones
Answering the Call
Olivia’s fire department mentor, Firefighter Chris Jones, had told her that her fire and EMS cross-training meant she should always trust her gut about how she could do the most good.
She was still a new firefighter when a call came in from Hopewell Borough. This would have been the first time she went inside a burning structure to fight the fire, but as she was about to rush in, a man was pulled out.
“I dropped my air pack on the front lawn to help take care of the patient,” Olivia remembered. As other crew members monitored his vital signs and called ahead to the hospital, Olivia put a mask on his face and squeezed a bag to helped the man breathe. He survived.
Olivia is so appreciative of the role the Juniors program played in her life that she began mentoring the next generation of cadets and juniors. At nursing school, she became an executive board member for the Future Health Professional Program, guiding new students as they select their future profession.
The confidence Olivia earned at the firehouse and squad has changed more than just her career path. Before enrolling in nursing school, the formerly shy Olivia spent six months solo traveling and volunteering in South Africa, Madagascar, Nepal, China, Bali, and the Virgin Islands. She tutored children in English and helped care for animals at a wildlife refuge, among other jobs.
“I made it a point to stop at a fire department in every location,” she said. She gave her new friends Hopewell Fire Department patches.
The Parent Perspective: Protective, then Proud
When Olivia first joined the Hopewell Fire & EMU Juniors program and became an EMT, her parents, Mel and Vikki Obst, were thrilled that that she wanted to do something so community minded. When Olivia decided she also wanted to become a certified firefighter,Vikki was more than a little nervous.
Both Mel and Vikki said visiting the firehouse and meeting Hopewell Chief Joe Novak and the other volunteers made them a lot more comfortable with Olivia’s goal.
“It’s like a second family there, and I knew they would not put her in harm’s way,” Mel Obst said.
Vikki still says an extra prayer when Olivia goes on a call, but she also trusts her daughter’s instincts, her training, and her team.
The Obsts offer this advice to other parents: “If this is what your kid wants to do, let them try it,” Mel said. “She’s making a whole career out of it. I’ve really seen her bloom.”
“I have an incredible daughter who is who she is because of the choices she has made,” Vikki said. “This has been great for her!”
Impressing the Chief
The firefighters and EMTs all work together to keep each other safe, regardless of age, Hopewell Fire & EMU’s Chief Joe Novak said, but special policies are in place to protect younger volunteers.
Young people can join as cadets at age 14, when they can take part in all training at the station and help firefighters and EMTs with station-based duties, such as caring for equipment and ensuring the ambulances are stocked, but cannot ride the trucks or be on emergency scenes. At age 16, they become juniors and can then ride apparatus and assist on-scene, he said, but still cannot enter a burning building.
Academically, Olivia’s parents were not the only ones insisting she keep her grades up. “We understand that obviously comes first, and we set commitment expectations that are reasonable and attainable so we don’t get in the way of that,” Novak said.
Joe Novak has been Olivia’s chief since day one. He was impressed by how much and how quickly she learned, and how well-suited she was for emergency response.
“She’s very calm, cool, and collected,” he said. “If I or one of my family members got sick, she would be one of the ones I’d want to be there. She is really good at what she does.”
Olivia hopes to work as an intensive care nurse, and also provide emergency medical care in the air, on Medivac flights. She continues to answer calls, attend drill nights, and work with the junior program in Hopewell and, if her career takes her to another community, she will volunteer there, too.
Interested in volunteering or learning more? Please visit www.ProtectHopewellValley.com, or call Matt Martin at 609-537-0287. Emergency and non-emergency volunteers are needed at all Hopewell Valley fire and ambulance companies now. Training and gear are free.
This press piece was written and submitted by Protect Hopewell Valley.