New Trier student by day, Colombia firefighter by night
Junior AJ Wise volunteers thousands of miles away during school year
Virtual learning gave students the opportunity to enjoy the comforts of home while taking classes. New Trier High School junior AJ Wise saw and took a different opportunity, studying and volunteering thousands of miles away in Colombia.
Wise, who said he’s always had an interest in medicine, wanted to travel last summer. For years, he spent summers attending camp in Canada but he wanted something different in 2020. He got his different experience; it was just delayed by the pandemic.
Instead of the summer he envisioned, Wise traveled to Colombia in November 2020 after the South American country lifted its travel bans, and stayed there for five months, returning in March 2021.
Wise was enrolled in a program that accepted participants as young as 16, and trained them to work as EMTs and firefighters in the country. He thought of delaying his volunteer trip, but then realized that by attending virtual school at New Trier, he could take classes from “anywhere” — like another country.
“I was thinking, ‘When else do I have an opportunity to do school virtually?’” said Wise, of Northfield. “I can do school remotely from anywhere.”
Despite his interest in medicine, Wise said he had no experience in any medical fields before traveling to Colombia, so he spent his first two weeks in the country undergoing “intense” training.
He also used the experience to judge if this was a field that would interest him in the future.
“[The training] was basically learning all of the basic skills I need to be an EMT,” Wise said. “There are things that I learned as I went, and I learned from coworkers, but the transition period was really, really intense. It was definitely testing if I was able to handle this, and I was able to get through it, focus and get to where I was able to feel comfortable and volunteer.”
Wise was stationed in Bello, a suburb just north of the large, central-Colombian city of Medellín. He said living in Bello and working as a first-responder helped him to see Colombia and the area where he was living in a different light, than if he were just vacationing.
While his workload in Colombia was already difficult, Wise also had to balance his schoolwork from New Trier.
During the school week, Wise would have classes for seven hours, before doing homework for an hour or two and then working a shift through the night. While New Trier was on winter break, Wise said he would work 12-hour shifts at the fire department.
An additional challenge? The fire station at which Wise worked was the only station that serviced nearly 700,000 residents of Bello and the surrounding area.
“We were covering a humongous amount of area and part of Bello is in the mountains where they have really tiny streets and there’s no way we could get engines through,” Wise said. “Sometimes it was a lot of walking and running with stuff, or carrying people.”
In addition to the strenuous fire-fighting work, Wise was also working as paramedic during a pandemic and had to deal with exceedingly difficult situations in that line of work.
“It was a lot of wearing really heavy duty PPE that would leave lines on my face for days on end,” Wise said. “We would come into hospitals with lines out the door of COVID patients who were being kept alive just by being bagged by a nurse. That’s stuff I’m never going to forget.”
It was also “without a doubt” emotionally draining working as a first-responder during a health crisis, according to Wise. He said he was having to make “really difficult decisions,” including telling some Colombian families their loved ones were not going to survive their fight with COVID-19.
“They were so stretched thin that once they were comfortable with my training, I was working right alongside the EMTs from Colombia,” Wise said. “I had to have conversations with families that it wasn’t safe for people to be transferred to a hospital for our sake and for their sake, and it’s in their best interest to have them pass peacefully at home. It was some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had to have in my life.”
Even though he went through a tremendous amount of work and had to deal with the horrors of COVID-19 firsthand, Wise said the experience was one he was grateful for, and he encourages others to volunteer abroad, as well.
“When we come together, the pandemic has been one of those things that it’s been a great way to see people do that (volunteer), continuing that with high schoolers and young people in general is really important,” Wise said. “It’s important to start kids off young doing things to help other people and I think it helps to build a better society.”
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Erin is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area. She most recently served as the editor of The Highland Park Landmark. Her work has also been featured in Chowhound, Choose Chicago, Eat This Not That, MSN and the Lake County News Sun.