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Teen volunteers get foot in the door for nursing home jobs

  • KAISER HEALTH NEWS / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
                                Dominga Marquez, a resident at the facility, says having the student volunteers there has helped with the isolation forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    KAISER HEALTH NEWS / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    Dominga Marquez, a resident at the facility, says having the student volunteers there has helped with the isolation forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • KAISER HEALTH NEWS / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE 
                                Jasmine De Moya, left, and Kennedy Johnson volunteered at a New Jewish Home senior living facility in New York as part of a program where they also receive training for health jobs, college prep and career coaching.

    KAISER HEALTH NEWS / TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    Jasmine De Moya, left, and Kennedy Johnson volunteered at a New Jewish Home senior living facility in New York as part of a program where they also receive training for health jobs, college prep and career coaching.

Jasmine De Moya, 17, has dreamed for years of working in the medical field, and she yearned to spend time with older people, missing her grandparents, who live in the Dominican Republic. A program sponsored by the New Jewish Home health system in New York City that combines volunteering and free training for entry-level health jobs, career coaching and assistance on her college prep is helping make her hopes come alive.

Over the past three years, Jasmine has learned a lot about caring for older people, from the importance of speaking slowly and being gentle with frail residents to how to brush their teeth or bathe them.

“We practiced first with mannequins, so when we actually (worked on residents), I was in shock,” she said. “Cleaning a body and their private areas, I never expected I would do that. But then I got used to it.”

Last summer, Jasmine completed a certified nursing assistant training course. She has also researched and applied to colleges and for student loans with help from an organization that the geriatrics career development program provides to volunteers like her. After graduating from high school in June, Jasmine will start nursing school at Lehman College in the Bronx in the fall. She’ll be the first in her family to attend college.

Since it launched in 2006, the program has helped more than 700 high school students from 10 underserved schools in New York City get hands-on experience with geriatric care at the New Jewish Home in Manhattan and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Gardens senior living facility in the Bronx. Ninety-nine percent of program participants graduate from high school, and more than 150 have gone on to college.

The advantages of the program are also evident for the New Jewish Home, which operates two nursing homes, senior housing and assisted-living facilities and a home care business in the New York City area. By familiarizing young people with geriatric-care careers, the system aims to address its growing need for workers as the tide of baby boomers enter their later years.

Six of the top 10 fastest- growing jobs in the decade leading up to 2029 are projected to be in health care, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“One of our biggest challenges is that there aren’t enough people who want to work in this industry,” said Dr. Jeffrey Farber, president and CEO of the New Jewish Home system.

The New Jewish Home began its career development program for teens 15 years ago with the idea of training and hiring them as nursing assistants, Farber said.

But it has become more than that. Working a few afternoons a week for three years with older adults, students gain insights into aging and develop relation- ships with residents. It also gives students assistance with figuring out career goals and putting the pieces in place to get there.

“I think the students would be successful without us, but we provide the structure and resources to help them succeed,” said John Cruz, senior director of workforce initiatives at the New Jewish Home, who oversees the program.

Students generally must devote two afternoons after school every week and several weeks during the summer, said Cruz. The program initially teaches students basics about patient privacy, Medicare/Medicaid and overcoming stereotypes about older people. By the time they’re seniors in high school, students can train as certified nursing assistants and work as paid interns.

As part of the program, students may also become certified in other jobs, including patient care technician, phlebotomist, EKG technician and medical coding and billing staff.

The pandemic, however, changed things. The New Jewish Home in Manhattan was hit hard, with dozens of COVID-19 deaths at the 514-bed facility.

Since volunteers weren’t permitted inside the facility, the home hired many of them as part-timers so they could continue to help seniors and complete clinical training for their certified nursing assistant coursework.

In February the state announced that nursing homes could accept visitors again, following federal guidelines. But many nursing home residents still rely on virtual visits, and during the spring Jasmine helped them connect with loved ones by iPad or phone.

The isolation was hard on the residents. Asked how the students helped her, resident Dominga Marquez, 78, said, “Just talk.”

“We are lonely,” said Marquez. “I have a lot of friends that used to come every week to visit, but with the pandemic, nobody came.”

Kennedy Johnson, 17, said helping seniors experience virtual visits made him realize how much he takes for granted.

“With the pandemic and doing the virtual calls, seeing how these families don’t get to interact with their loved ones every day, that really opened my eyes,” he said.

Working at the New Jewish Home was the first time Kennedy had seen the kinds of work that staff members do.

In the fall he will start at Morehouse College in Atlanta and plans to major in political science. His goal: “I want to be a health care attorney so I can represent people … like this.”

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Kaiser Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Visit khn.org.

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