Taking the TRAIN

DATE: Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Free program trains unemployed individuals to work as home health aides.

Tanea Weissleder practices a range of motion exercise on her classmate Jackie Gomez. Both are from Springfield.

The satisfaction Kelly Gustafson felt last month receiving her certificate to work as a home health aide came with bittersweet memories.

Last year, her 3½-year-old daughter, Adrianna, died of complications from a litany of severe medical conditions she had endured since birth, including cerebral palsy, epilepsy and a brain cyst. 

Gustafson, 32, had been working at a Dunkin Donuts' shop. She decided to pursue more rewarding work in the health field, she said, because of her daughter and all the medical professionals who had cared for Adrianna during her short life.

"She couldn't walk. She couldn't talk. She depended on someone at all times," Gustafson said. "She inspired me to help other people with disabilities or medical problems."

Gustafson will now get that chance. She and her 11 classmates graduated Friday, Feb. 24, from a new, free home health aide-training program offered jointly by Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College through their Training and Workforce Options enterprise, also known as TWO.

Over eight weeks, students completed 160 hours of classroom instruction and hands-on, technical training. Each received industry certificates as home health aides as well as certificates in First Aid, CPR and basic life support, Alzheimer's/Dementia, OSHA-10 (for workplace safety) and career readiness.

"We learned a lot," said Gustafson, who lives in Westfield.

This was the second of four groups funded by a $228,529 grant from the Dept. of Higher Education's TRAIN initiative, which stands for Training Resources and Internship Networks.

Most of the training for this group was held at HCC's Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center (PAFEC) in downtown Holyoke. A third cohort of 16 began training March 2 at STCC. The fourth group will start in May at HCC.

"The grant creates opportunities for long-term unemployed or unemployed individuals to enter the workforce," said Kermit Dunkelberg, HCC assistant vice president of Adult Basic Education and Workforce Development. "Between now and June 30, we will be training up to 64 people to be home health aides."

What's unique about this program, Dunkelberg said, is that the training is followed by up to a month of paid work experience at area home health care agencies, who sent representatives to PAFEC to conduct interviews with students.

"We will place them in jobs with our regional employer partners," said Dunkelberg.

Those partners include Porchlight VNA/Home Care, O'Connell Care at Home, Victory Home Health Care, Metro Care Springfield, Aging at Home, Spectrum, Caring Solutions LLC, and Personal Touch.

Many of the students receive multiple offers, and that experience can lead to permanent positions. Dunkelberg said the first cohort, which completed its training in December, has an 83 percent job placement rate, which he called "remarkable."

"I have two places I'm interested in," Gustafson said.

Jackie Gomez said the interview experiences, resume-building workshops, and career guidance built into the program was just as important as the hands-on training as a home health aide.

"It's not just a program that once it ends the connection with us ends," said Gomez, 29, who lives in Springfield. "They want to keep helping us." 

During the program, counselors also talked about continuing education opportunities. Tanea Weissleder, 32, who lives in Springfield, said she earned her high school equivalency in December and eventually wants to be a registered nurse. She intends to enroll in college to complete her prerequisites for nursing school while also working as a home health aide.

"I took this opportunity as a stepping-stone," she said.

Gomez said she had worked for years as a personal care assistant, but was more recently unemployed. She went to FutureWorks Career Center in Springfield looking for job training opportunities when she heard about TWO's home health aide program.

"I met the requirements, and it ended up being a whole lot more than what I thought it was," said Gomez, who lives in Springfield. "It was exactly what I was looking for.

PHOTOS: (Feature) Tanea Weissleder practices a range of motion exercise on her classmate Jackie Gomez. Both are from Springfield. (Thumbnail) Nateisha Greaves, of West Springfield, takes the pulse of classmate Kelly Gustafson, of Westfield.