Photo courtesy Chief Todd Wernet: South Pierce County Fire and Rescue Chief Todd Wernett, left, speaks with Valeriy Goloborodko, and volunteer firefighter Mikhail Zyalik at the rear of one of the ambulances SPFR is donating to Ukraine to aid in frontline rescue efforts.
Photo courtesy Chief Todd Wernet: South Pierce County Fire and Rescue Chief Todd Wernett, left, speaks with Valeriy Goloborodko, and volunteer firefighter Mikhail Zyalik at the rear of one of the ambulances SPFR is donating to Ukraine to aid in frontline rescue efforts.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Americans responded overwhelmingly in support of the Ukrainian people. Last month, South Pierce Fire and Rescue, headquartered in Eatonville, added to that effort by donating two emergency vehicles to Ukraine’s frontline rescue efforts.

The vehicles – two ambulances equipped for emergency rescue operations – had been scheduled to be retired by South Pierce Fire and Rescue as the department updated its fleet of emergency response vehicles. After an auction in which neither vehicle received bids, the two were due to either quietly rust or be taken apart for scrap.

This trajectory was drastically changed when a volunteer firefighter, Mikhail Zyalik, saw how those vehicles could fill a desperate need.

Zyalik is Russian by birth and grew up in Siberia, a vast region in the east of the country. He emigrated to the United States in 1997 and has lived in Washington state ever since. Zyalik worked two jobs for many years: a full-time job with Delta Airlines and a job with the state of Washington’s social services. After pandemic cutbacks ended his career with Delta, he began volunteering as a firefighter and soon gained a reputation as a hard worker and conscientious colleague.

“Mikhail’s been a big part of our department since he’s been here,” SPFR Chief Todd Wernet said. “He’s got some life experience, a fantastic attitude and a different perspective.”

Zyalik’s first connection to Ukraine came in 2011, when he participated in a summer hosting program that arranged for Ukrainian orphans to stay for a few weeks with Slavic families in the United States. Zyalik’s family connected so well with the two children they hosted that they soon decided to adopt them. This led to the Zyaliks traveling to Ukraine, meeting their adopted children’s family and visiting the orphanage the boys had lived in. Upon returning to Washington, they became engaged in the state’s large Ukrainian community, raising funds for the orphanage and helping expand the summer hosting program.

“We came from nothing and came to the land of plenty,” Zyalik said. “Once we saw the need in Ukraine, we realized we could give these kids a future.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Zyaliks’ church decided to send aid, and Zyalik joined a group that flew to Poland to deliver food and medical supplies to refugees fleeing across the Polish-Ukrainian border. Zyalik was the ideal candidate for the job: His experience as an emergency worker prepared him to meet refugees in dire circumstances, while his language skills -- he speaks English, Russian, Ukrainian, German and some Polish -- and experience in social services helped him engage with people in a trauma-informed way. When Zyalik asked refugees and emergency workers what they felt the greatest need was, he said the answer was unanimous: better emergency vehicles to rescue wounded soldiers from the battlefield.
Like many lower- and middle-income countries, Ukraine’s paramedics rely on lightly equipped vans, which have proven woefully inadequate for the frontlines of a war that has been defined by relentless use of artillery by both sides. Civilian vehicles are incapable of navigating terrain that has been churned up by explosive shells, and this means that Ukraine’s ambulances often cannot help soldiers on the frontlines. By contrast, the vehicles used by SPFR and other emergency rescuers in the United States are tougher and more durable than civilian vehicles, with more engine power and space for carrying medical supplies and equipment.  

When Zyalik heard that two emergency vehicles were available in south Pierce County, he moved fast, reaching out to Ukraine’s honorary consul in Seattle, Valeriy Goloborodko, and advocating for SPFR’s management to donate the units. Wernet was more than happy to follow Zyalik’s plan.

Thanks to Zyalik’s networking, the emergency vehicles were delivered to Goloborodko last month. The next stage of the process is shipping them to Ukraine. Conventional shipping options for similar vehicles are prohibitively expensive, so Goloborodko plans to partially disassemble the vehicles with the help of a mechanic and fit them into a shipping container. From the Port of Seattle, the container will be shipped to Poland, most likely to the city of Gdansk. When the container arrives in Gdansk, Zyalik plans to be there to meet it. He and another volunteer will drive the units approximately 450 miles to the Ukrainian border.

Once in Ukraine, the vehicles will be handed over to the Ukrainian army. Goloborodko said one will be sent north to a military unit patrolling the Belarusian border as Belarus is allied with Russia and therefore a threat to Ukraine; the other will be sent east to an active service unit on the frontlines of the war. 

Washington state has been home to a large Ukrainian diaspora community for decades, and this close connection to Ukraine translated into an outpouring of support from Washingtonians when Russia invaded. When Zyalik’s church sent supplies and volunteers to eastern Europe, one of Zyalik’s suitcases was full of valuable surgical equipment donated by a local Kaiser Permanente hospital. Goloborodko recounted many more instances of generosity: King County employees banded together to donate over $250,000; the Seattle Mayor’s Office organized a concert that raised over $400,000; and ordinary Washingtonians have worked to raise hundreds of thousands more for Ukraine. Goloborodko said the majority of donations go through churches and nonprofit organizations that are working on the ground in Ukraine.

Goloborodko and other Ukrainians worry, however, that as the Ukraine war fades from U.S. headlines to be replaced by domestic issues, the generosity of Americans towards Ukraine’s plight will fade also. “Attention is shifting, but people are still dying in Ukraine,” Goloborodko said, adding that Americans should not stop supporting the Ukrainian fight for freedom. “We defend our values, values that were preached to us by the United States and European countries -- and we don’t want to give them up.”