- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

Marsha Young, 20, first thought about becoming a nurse at age 3. “I always wanted to help people, and nursing is the best way,” she says.

Later, she had some hopes of becoming a surgeon, but an unplanned pregnancy at age 17 put those dreams on hold.

Today, her 3-year-old daughter is in day care while Miss Young, a graduate of Anacostia High School who lives with her parents in Southeast, combines college with work. She is a nursing assistant at Providence Hospital’s Carroll Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in a pilot program begun last year by the nonprofit Urban Alliance Foundation (UAF).

The foundation itself began in 1996 with the aim of helping economically disadvantaged District high school students get work experience at Washington-area nonprofits and businesses as a spur to higher education and self-sufficiency. Counseling, mentoring and life-skills lessons are part of the program, which has reached more than 300 young people to date, 85 percent of whom have gone on to four-year colleges, according to executive director Veronica Nolan.

Three out of the four pilot-project nursing students took part in the UAF internship program. Miss Young was an administrative assistant for the District’s Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. She also had worked for six or seven months at a private health care consulting firm and spent time as a stay-at-home mom.

The nurse training program is a partnership with Providence Hospital and the University of the District of Columbia, where eligible students attend classes leading toward a registered nurse degree. UDC reserves slots for UAF-sponsored students to attend its highly competitive nursing course for free. The hospital hires them part time at $10.50 per hour, and in return, the students agree to join the nursing staff there full time for two years after earning their degrees.

The four young women currently enrolled — three graduates of Anacostia High School and one from Eastern High School — will be joined soon by 25 finalists from among the 50 candidates who have applied for the second incoming group.

The four begin UDC summer classes — anatomy lab and lecture three days a week — next month and expect to get their registered nurse degrees in 2006. The new group will undergo a six-week certified nursing assistant training class at the hospital beginning July 1 before beginning work there.

“So many kids in the District get a bum rap, but we get some of the best kids around,” says Ms. Nolan, referring to the number of students taking part in UAF’s high school internships, whose mission she describes as “helping motivate students so that promising students can achieve their dreams.”

Dreams often come up against on-the-job realities. Nursing-assistant duties are seldom glamorous. Two of the high school graduates accepted into the pilot project have dropped out.

Miss Young reports to the hospital at 7 a.m. and works until 3:30 p.m. two days a week, helping residents on the home’s geriatric floor, which houses 48 of the manor’s total 240 residents.

The routine includes changing bed linens and diapers where necessary, getting residents out of bed, and delivering meal trays. She has a half-hour for lunch at 1:30 p.m. In addition, before leaving each day, she makes notes about each person in her care: how much he or she ate, how often a person “toileted” and other observations critical to monitoring the elderly in fragile health.

Susan Holt, 90, sitting in a wheelchair in the hallway before lunch in the dining room, shows off beautifully manicured nails that Miss Young had done for her. “She’s very nice,” Mrs. Holt says.

Miss Young, an honor-roll student at Anacostia, is the first person in her family to go for a college degree. Her mother currently works in a nursing home in the laundry.

Asked what options had been open to her after high school, the obviously bright and able young mother concedes that she might have ended up working in a fast-food restaurant.

Adjusting to a combined study-work schedule wasn’t easy, she admits, a matter confirmed by Guardia Bannister, vice president of nursing at Providence Hospital.

“These are young people with talent facing extraordinary odds. They are interested in becoming a registered nurse, but they have all these social challenges — some because of the nature of the school system itself; some are mothers or come from chaotic backgrounds,” she says.

“It’s a pleasure to have her,” volunteers Cheryl Williams, a 1984 graduate of UDC’s nursing program and the nurse manager to whom Miss Young reports. “She’s come a long way. I think she wasn’t used to working.”

Ms. Bannister is frank about the challenges facing program administrators and nursing staff to get the pilot project off the ground, both socially and academically. The students were not prepared well enough, she says.

“We found their math and English skills weren’t up to par. Many people seeing nursing on television have no sense what it is about — the fact you have to take algebra, calculus and chemistry. I think we are putting [the next group] through a much more rigorous evaluation.”

The need for nurses locally and nationally has never been greater, she says, due primarily to the fact that the average age of nurses is now about 46 and the potential pool of younger applicants doesn’t always see the profession as an attractive career choice.

“Plus, there are so many more [career] options out there for women who once would not have had those choices,” she says.

The need is bound to grow, too. “One of the reasons we put [the program’s nurse candidates] into a long-term-care setting initially is because we know the population is aging and there is going to be an expansion in geriatric services.”

Students have more opportunity to develop what Ms. Bannister calls their “caring skills” when they are involved in long-term relationships with resident patients. The skills are different, she points out, for nurses working in intensive care or emergency departments, where they may see a large number of patients for brief periods only.

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