NORFOLK, Neb. – When executives of ShopKo announced in 2019 they were permanently closing the company’s store in O’Neill, Sandra Homolka did not know what to do. She had worked at the retail chain for over five years, starting as seasonal help and working her way up to floor supervisor, a position she’d held for two years.
“Fifteen to nineteen of us (from ShopKo) would be out of work. Knowing that O’Neill is not a very big town, that’s a lot of people searching for work at the same time,” she said.
Although Homolka held various positions in business, from working as an accountant to office manager, she decided it was time for a major change. She discovered a program through Northeast Community College that allowed her to pursue a new career in healthcare.
Northeast’s Project H.E.L.P. (Health Education Laddering Program) assists income-eligible Nebraskans with educational and training opportunities to prepare them to enter and advance in high-demand, well-paying healthcare jobs. It is funded through a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Profession Opportunity Grant (HPOG).
“Project H.E.L.P. works with community agencies and area employers to provide participants with a wrap-around approach to overcoming barriers while learning about the healthcare field,” said Lisa Belz, Project H.E.L.P. career coach/recruiter at Northeast. “Students must be planning to enroll in one of the college’s healthcare programs to be eligible.”
Eligible healthcare programs include emergency medical technician/paramedic, health information management services, medication aide, medical assistant, nursing assistant, physical therapist assistant, practical nursing, registered nursing, or surgery technician. At Northeast, participants in Project H.E.L.P. receive support services such as intensive success coaching, scholarships, laptop checkout, scrubs, transportation assistance, resume/interview preparation, and job placement assistance.
Homolka received scholarships for classes, transportation assistance, training-related cost assistance, and most importantly, individualized success coaching to help her navigate her return to school.
“Having Project H.E.L.P. there to help me pay for the classes, and providing gas money to get to and from classes, and for providing the books that were needed - all of that helped. Had that not been available, I’m not sure I would have been able to go on to do those classes.”
After passing her certified nursing assistant (CNA) and medication aide exams, Homolka now works full-time at Good Samaritan Society in nearby Atkinson. She went from earning $11.48 an hour at ShopKo to $13.40 an hour with benefits as a CNA. She said she is looking forward to continuing her career in the healthcare field.
“I’m happy to have my CNA because it opens so many avenues for me being able to do other things. I can go into hospice care, or home healthcare. Having this certificate opens that door.”
Since the grant was first awarded five years ago, Project H.E.L.P. at Northeast has seen 107 students earn degrees and certificates in healthcare occupational training courses. In addition, the program assisted 85 students with training-related costs and provided help to another 74 in meeting their transportation costs. Those graduates working in the healthcare industry have experienced an average wage increase of $4.32 per hour.
Before she came to Northeast in her present role, Belz worked alongside healthcare professionals. She is now in a role where she has the opportunity to support students as they earn certificates and degrees that lead to employment in the healthcare industry.
“What an honor! I have great respect for healthcare workers,” Belz said. “Our Project H.E.L.P. team is very dedicated to our students as they strive to achieve their goals. During COVID-19, our Project H.E.L.P. students showed great resilience and adaptability. I always look forward to any opportunity to recruit and talk about our program.”
Belz said she has witnessed Northeast’s partners and employers respond positively when they hear about students in the program and the opportunities offered through the program.
“After working with a student to prep for a job interview, it is a joy to learn that they obtained that job! I look forward to each meeting with Project H.E.L.P. students and want to continue to see them successfully gain employment,” Belz said.
Kendall Uhrich also serves in the program at Northeast as a Project H.E.L.P. success coach.
The HPOG grant, originally administered to Central Community College in 2015, has been granted a $2.3 million continuation through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funds will be distributed among Central’s higher education partners at Mid-Plains Community College, Northeast Community College and Southeast Community College in order to work with future students.
Homolka said anyone considering a career in healthcare, no matter their age, should “just go for it.”
“Don’t be scared to open another door. Sometimes taking a different avenue you never thought you’d take opens a door that you should have opened a long time ago. Never second guess what you might be able to do.”
Kendall Uhrich, Project H.E.L.P. (Health Education Laddering Program) success coach at Northeast Community College, (right) visits with Erin Buetler, Bancroft, a licensed practical nursing student and a recipient in the Project H.E.L.P program. The program assists eligible individuals with educational and training opportunities to prepare them to enter and advance in high-demand, well-paying healthcare jobs. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which funds Project H.E.L.P., has awarded a $2.3 million renewal of its Health Profession Opportunity Grant to Northeast and its community college partners in Nebraska in order to continue their work with future healthcare students. (Courtesy Northeast Community College)
HPOG is a study funded by the federal government which is being conducted to determine how these training opportunities help people improve their skills and find better jobs. During the study, all new eligible applicants will be selected by lottery to participate in these training opportunities. Not all eligible applicants will be selected to participate in these opportunities.
This document was supported by Grant 90FX0040 from the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of HHS.