More than half a century after her grandmother served in the Red Cross during World War II, Sumeirra Gossett dreams of continuing her grandmother’s legacy as she trains to become a nurse’s assistant at Casa Central.
Casa Central, now in it’s 60th year, is located in Humboldt Park and funded by city and state grants. It began its employment and training program in 1980, combining vocational training, counseling and enrichment activities in order to help people become more employable. Although it is open to all, most students are young women, often single mothers. Today, the Certified Nursing Assistant program trains 65 students each year. The program is free, and Casa Central says it makes sure each participant leaves the program ready for a job.
Their experience in the CNA program, which allows them to work mainly with elderly patients, affords them a more stable career path, as the job outlook for nursing assistants is expected to grow by 21 percent in the next eight years.
Still, it’s not the most lucrative job. As of 2012, the median annual pay for nursing assistants was $24,420, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—for one person, well above the poverty level, but for a family of four, just scraping by. When compared to a living wage, calculated by the Economic Policy Institute, one parent and one child living in Chicago would require more than $53,000 per year.
“We send them fully equipped not only with the skills, the people skills as well, but we buy them their uniform, we buy them their stethoscope – we buy them their watch, their shoes,” said Richard Juarez, deputy director of senior services and employment training program at Casa Central.
Gossett, a 24-year-old originally from Los Angeles, later moving to the South Side of Chicago and Gary, Indiana before returning to Chicago, said she could have settled for any sort of job, a boyfriend and an apartment when she came to Chicago, but she wanted to work toward a career in the health industry.
“I wanted something better than that,” Gossett said. “I wanted to do what I dreamed about.
Gossett said before she came to Chicago she “never really had the courage to get involved.” But when she arrived, her aunt, who works at Rush University Medical Center, said even a desk job at the hospital would require prior experience in the field.
Gossett is set to graduate this month and take the state exam in August. If she passes, her next step on her way to the Red Cross will be working with mothers and babies at Rush, alongside her aunt.
The CNA program lasts 13 weeks and meets five days per week. Students learn about health care through lectures at Casa Central and clinicals at Chicago nursing homes such as International Nursing and Rehab. Most clinicals allow students to work with elderly patients, although some work with a variety of patients at Norwegian American Hospital. They also learn life skills like conflict resolution, relationships and financial management. On average, 87 percent of participants graduate the program and of those who graduate, 90 percent find employment.
Many participants are young, single mothers, for whom a nearly full-time course might not be possible. For those who qualify, Casa Central also offers bus passes and childcare.
“Our participants are individuals who often face a lot of adversity in their life,” said David Moreno, program director for the Employment Training Program.
On a recent day, Gossett’s class reviewed a wide range of material, from body structure to caring for the elderly. Their instructor, Shirley Butler, a nurse and lecturer at Malcolm X College, reminded the group of young women of their upcoming quiz—a reminder met with groans and, for a student who thought it was the midterm coming up, relief.
The conversations during the lesson flowed back and forth, from anterior, posterior and proximal to a situation involving two star-crossed elderly residents.
“They started a relationship? Ohhh no,” Butler said before explaining that, according to the state, and despite a son’s disapproval, “that’s their business.”
“My classmates are awesome,” Gossett said. “My teacher Ms. Butler is like the best I’ve ever had. And doing clinicals and reading really, really gives you a lot of experience.”
Still, the course has plenty of challenges. Gossett recalled the time she had to give an elderly resident a bed bath.
“I had to clean his backside. And when I noticed all the dirt and things accumulated on him, I was very sad for him,” Gossett said, noting that other nurses hadn’t had time to clean him. “That’s when I knew I could do it. I know there will be more challenges.”